At the ‘Full Fourths’ Prom, Sir Andrew Davis and the BBC Phil make the case for a Tippett rarity

United KingdomUnited Kingdom BBC Proms 2022 [6], Prom 6 – Vaughan Williams, Tippett:  BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 19.7.2022. (KMcD)

Sir Andrew Davis © BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Vaughan Williams – Symphony No.4 in F minor

Tippett – Symphony No.4

This pairing at the ‘Full Fourths’ Prom of two symphonies by British composers who on paper at least appear diametrically opposed in terms of substance, form, and technique, turned out to be a canny one on the part of the BBC. Although short in length – in total there was just over an hour of music – this snapshot of British music, separated by four decades, was both enlightening and rewarding. It is hard to know whether the programme, intense heat, or a combination of the two was the reason for such a small audience, but what it lacked in numbers, it made up for in appreciation of the BBC Philharmonic’s playing, and Sir Andrew Davis’s conducting at the close.

Given the Proms is celebrating Vaughan Williams’s 150th anniversary of his birth, deciding which works to programme cannot have been an easy task. His Fourth Symphony certainly stands out from the rest of his symphonic output (apart from maybe the Sixth Symphony), in that the composer eschews the idyllic pastoral mood that permeates much of his work. This abrasive, ferocious symphony – almost an unremitting cry of angst and pain – certainly surprised, shook and confused the audience at its premiere in 1935. Indeed commentators were at pains to get the composer to explain what he meant by this lurch towards caustic, ‘modern’ music. ‘I don’t know whether I like it, but it’s what I meant’, was his cryptic reply during rehearsals for the premiere.

It is very much left to listeners to make up their own minds but given Vaughan Williams wrote it when fascism was on the rise in Germany, there is no escaping the realisation that its rage and sense of desolation seem a precursor to the horrors of war that were unleashed four years after its premiere.

The advertised conductor, Omer Meir Wellber, had to withdraw, and he was replaced by Davis. Few British conductors have such impeccable credentials when it comes to interpreting British music and Davis’s in-depth knowledge of both symphonies on the programme was evident in every bar. Having said that, the opening of Vaughan Williams’s Fourth seemed oddly reticent, the discord soft-grained, rather than attacked, while the tempo he set for the remainder of the first movement was a notch or two on the leisurely side. Of course, it all comes down to taste and subjectivity. I missed the ferocity other conductors bring to this work, but it was perfectly clear as the symphony progressed that Davis’s view was valid on its own terms.

He captured the sense of desolation perfectly in the second movement, shaping the long melodic lines lovingly, and in doing so made the climax all the more viscerally thrilling. There was plenty of sardonic bite to the Scherzo – braying woodwinds and brass adding to the sense of menace – while the last movement, with the return of the menacing, chromatic four-note theme from the first, powered on to its inexorable resolution. All sections of the BBC Philharmonic played brilliantly for Davis, it has to be said, but overall a sense of abandonment was missing from the conductor’s careful interpretation.

Sir Andrew Davis conducts the BBC Philharmonic © BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and first performed under Sir Georg Solti’s baton in 1977, Tippett’s beguiling Fourth Symphony is rarely heard these days, so this the perfect opportunity to revalue this idiosyncratic work. Tippett often drew on the unlikeliest sources for his works, and his Fourth is no exception. Inspired by watching a fast-motion film of a rabbit foetus, this single-movement symphony explores the distinct stages of human life, from birth to death. At the start, close and punctuated throughout the work, he calls for a ‘breathing effect’ – originally provided by a wind machine, but here by CJ Neale, whose amplified breathing adds an otherworldly dimension to the work and despite initial reservations, overcomes any Darth Vader connotations early on.

Davis arguably knows this score better than anyone else – his control over its often-unwieldy structure was secure, and he drew magnificently-assured playing from his orchestra. There is an abundance of musical ideas in this score – arguably too many – but Davis managed to weave them into a rich orchestral tapestry that more than did justice to Tippett’s strange, yet evocative work. The expanded brass section deftly navigated all the complex writing thrown at them, while the string tone was robust throughout. Whilst a few niggling doubts remained at the end as to whether it all ‘works’ as a symphony, it is hard to imagine a better case being made for its continued toehold on the repertory than Davis and his Manchester forces.

Keith McDonnell

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