Inspired programming and playing from Manze and Marwood at the Royal Festival Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Purcell, Adès, Lawes, Vaughan Williams: Anthony Marwood (violin), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Andrew Manze (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 7.12.2019. (CS)

Anthony Marwood (c) Pia Johnson

Purcell (arr. Manze) – Suite
Adès – Violin Concerto, Concentric Paths
Lawes (arr. Manze) – Fantasy
Vaughan WilliamsJob: A Masque for Dancing

This was inspired programming by Andrew Manze and the LPO.  On the page, the path from Purcell to Adès, via Vaughan Williams, looked to be a tricky one to negotiate.  In the Royal Festival Hall, it was utterly persuasive, and inspiringly so in the way that it illuminated creative connections and conversations.

Thomas Adès’ 2005 Violin Concerto, titled Concentric Paths, at first looked to be the odd man out.  Yet, the work’s ‘journeying motions’ seemed to have, in retrospect, more in common with Purcellian forms than one might have initially imagined.  The movement titles – ‘Rings’, ‘Paths’, ‘Rounds’ – suggest circularity and repetition, such as one might find, say, in a Purcellian ground bass or passacaglia.  And, ‘Rings’ opens with undulating waves which soloist Anthony Marwood executed with confident fluency, and which were then transferred to the orchestral strings as the solo violin took flight, like Shelley’s Skylark, to a stratosphere where it could unchain itself from the circling energies below.  Between them, Marwood and Manze balanced the relentless momentum, which ironically seems to lead nowhere – the soloist’s final flourish seems arbitrary – with episodes in which the soloist is poised aloft.  And, in the latter Marwood’s tone was incisive and the articulation eloquent.

‘Paths’ pitted Marwood’s spine-tingling double-stopped chords and pizzicatos against an unpredictable tutti riposte.  The clarity of Manze’s gestures ensured synchronicity.  I had not heard this Concerto performed live previously, though Augustin Hadelich’s 2014 recording (with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Hannu Lintu) has helped me become familiar with the work; but here my prevailing impression was of ‘blocks’ of musical material being repeated and re-invented – so, Purcell again.  And, the sound world seemed to recall the dark colours of the Funeral Music that we had just heard.  There was, too, a sense of ‘struggle’ such as one finds in Purcell’s funereal procession, though Marwood made his way to clearer waters, playing with lovely length of line and truly focused tone, in dialogue with the flutes and upper woodwind.  The image that came to mind, as he brushed his bow along the string, was of a painter applying thick, smooth paint to a canvas, swirling back and forth.

The opening of ‘Rounds’ has a march-like vigour, though the overlapping lines disrupt the regularity, and against this Marwood’s entry shone lustrously.  But, it was a Stravinskian asymmetry that took hold, and did battle with a harmonic pattern based on falling thirds which refused to be budged, so to speak.  Marwood and Manze captured both the rigour of the structure and the slipperiness of its articulation.  At the close, the admiration of the LPO players was warmly evident, while Manze – a fine fiddler himself – shook his head and smiled, seemingly in disbelief at Marwood’s relaxed dexterity.

The ‘prelude’ to Adès’ Concerto was a Suite formed of Manze’s own arrangement of four of Henry Purcell’s works, for varied instrumental groupings.  Though the funereal tread of the drums and low brass took a few moments to find its groove at the start of the Funeral Music for Queen Mary, the combination of ceremony and grief was theatrically conveyed by the growling timbre, the angry thump which propelled the dynamic surge, and the alternation of dry restraint and tightly controlled false relations as minor and major tonalities twisted and writhed.  In the Fantasy on one note which followed, the reedy darkness of tuba and wind was alleviated by the brightness of the flutes and the increasing vigour of the momentum, though the close similarly slid down through those characteristic major/minor ambiguities.  With the Chacony (ed. Britten), the strings had their chance to shine, and although there were occasions when rhythms were not absolutely aligned it was the overall spirit that enthralled.  The variations built, flowed and ebbed; at times the vibrato-less sound shrank to a whisper, though the expressive tension never dimmed.  The final cadence was an exquisite retreat into gentility, then silence – marred only by the inopportune explosion of coughing in the RFH.  And, so the Funeral Music returned: now the brass sound was enriched by tender string chords, pianissimo but penetrating.  Manze had offered us a veritable miniature Young Person’s Guide, the forms of which communed with Adès’ repetitions, circlings and re-visitings.

Manze’s arrangement of a viol consort by William Lawes opened the second half of the concert, building up from the lower strings towards the lovely sweetness of the entry of the highest of the six string voices.  Harp interjections added richness and drama, inspiring growing vivacity.  The LPO string players’ enjoyment was evident: the challenge lay not in the acrobatics of fingers or bow, but in the interweaving of dialogic contributions, and the latter clearly inspired a feeling of fellowship.  Leader Kevin Lin and Principal Cellist David Lale articulated their solo contributions with gentle expressiveness.

The closing bars were a perfectly tapered diminishment, but when the sound began to grow again, at first, I was taken aback: perhaps the Lawes had not ended?  No, these were the opening bars of Vaughan Williams’ ‘masque’, Job, which followed on segue.  A Manzerian masterstroke, one might say.  For the momentum this eliding established was dramatic and expressive: and it initiated an astonishingly engaging presentation of Vaughan Williams’ ‘ballet’ Job.

This is not an easy work to interpret and communicate.  There are musical clichés to be overcome: Satan is represented by growling brass, while Job’s patience and goodness are associated with high lying woodwind and strings.  There’s a ‘heaviness’ about some of the spirituality – here conveyed by Andrew Neill’s surtitles (operated by Sophie Rashbrook).  But, in Manze’s hands such matters were eclipsed by the passion and theatre of the LPO’s rendition.  The orchestral colourings of the biblical tale were sharply defined: it’s impossible to acknowledge each and every contribution, but perhaps it’s sufficient to remark that the orchestral kaleidoscope told the tale and delineated its emotional energy with astonishing vividness.  There was a litheness about the playing that was so fresh and true, and the pastoral episodes flowed beautifully, alongside biblical melodrama – Satan’s Dance, God’s grandiose riposte, Job’s cursing of God.  Martin Robertson’s alto saxophone solo wonderfully captured the ghastly glibness of the false comforters; Kevin Lin’s extended solo in ‘Elihu’s dance of youth and beauty’ had all the improvisatory charm of The Lark Ascending though it was confined to lower realms, where Lin’s tone spoke warmly and freely.  The closing bars were magical: the harps and strings withdrew leaving celli and double basses to retreat into nothingness.  For once, there was no injudiciously swift applause.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an orchestra acknowledge their conductor’s contribution with such warmth and delight.  When Manze returned to the stage after the initial applause, Kevin Lin insisted that the conductor should accept the renewed acclaim as his own.  Instrumentalists’ feet stamped and hands clapped; timpanist Simon Carrington waved his stick in the air like a football rattle.  One imagines that the LPO players would like to have Manze back on their podium soon – a sentiment shared by most in the Royal Festival Hall I would hazard.

Claire Seymour

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