BBC Phil’s music of Vaughan Williams at Salford Quays: thirty years apart

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Vaughan Williams: BBC Philharmonic / John Wilson (conductor). BBC Philharmonic Studio, MediaCityUK, Salford Quays, 14.1.2020. (RBa)

John Wilson (c) BBC

Vaughan Williams In the Fen Country; Symphony No.6

This was a short concert, less than an hour, and broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 for the Afternoon Concert strand. One composer was represented. The first work was written in Vaughan Williams’s early thirties, the other during his early sixties.

John Wilson, spry, dedicated, dynamic, communicative and reflecting attentive concentration, was on the podium. He was responsive to the music and ready to reflect it to the listener. He is a phenomenon in the concert­-hall world. He has one foot planted firmly in popular and light culture (Cinema, Broadway, Coates), and the other in refreshing repertoire from the last century and a half.

The short orchestral piece In the Fen Country most closely accords with received popular opinion about Vaughan Williams. It opens with adeptly played sensitive solos for cor anglais and viola. That order of instruments is reversed for the final pages but not before nicely taken additional solos for violin, flute and clarinet. The work’s poetic wash of shifting textures speaks of the composer’s early years – and strangely enough of Vítězslav Novák’s In The Tatras (1902). We are now so much more familiar with those years courtesy of the work of Martin Yates, the English Music Festival and the Albion record label. At one time In the Fen Country pretty much had the field to itself as an early work. It was even included in the famous EMI-Boult RVW cycle of the 1960s and early 1970s.

The BBC Phil and conductor treated the Sixth Symphony to aggression reflected in sharply delineated attack and staccato. This is not to overlook the two harps and richly flexed E major violin tune which register strongly in the first movement; part of it was memorably used in ITV’s Family At War series which came out at roughly the same time as the RVW centenary. The eighty-plus strong BBC Phil (a noticeably bigger ensemble than for In The Fen Country) caught the mood superbly.

John Wilson was, as ever, mobile on the podium. No one could call him impassive, and his gestures and movements were all in step with the score. His hands (open-palmed, pointing or gesticulating with closed fist) were notably expressive and vibrant in calling forth emotional tension and rictus. The tenor saxophone has its exposed solo moments but also plays often as part of the whole woodwind canvas. The orchestra conveyed both the stuttering desolation of the murmuring epilogue and its bleak tenderness. The curve downwards into silence was superbly done.

Over the last five years Vaughan Williams has been represented throughout John Wilson’s concert diary. I wonder if a Vaughan Williams recorded cycle is in the prospect.

Rob Barnett

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