United Kingdom Vaughan Williams, Bruckner: Sir Simon Keenlyside (baritone), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Robin Ticciati (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 30.11.2022 (CC)
Vaughan Williams – Five Mystical Songs
Bruckner – Symphony No.9 in D-minor (movements 1-3: Nowak); Finale: performing version 1983-2012 by Nicola Samale, John A. Phillips, Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs and Giuseppe Mazzuca, revised by John A. Phillips 2021-22 (first performance)
An interesting combination from the London Philharmonic Orchestra: a short set of songs (with Simon Keenlyside on top form) set against the extended length of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, complete with finale.
The Vaughan Williams felt like home territory for Keenlyside, surely the perfect voice for these pieces, his diction superb throughout, and sounding absolutely resplendent for the opening line ‘Rise up, the Lord is risen’. The Metaphysical poet George Herbert’s glowing poetry obviously acted as a spur to the composer’s imagination (the most famous Metaphysical poet remains John Donne) – the level of inspiration never drops. We heard the cycle in its version without choir, which generally gave it a more intimate aspect. Keenlyside’s confidence – and superb projection – was matched by the orchestra, translucent throughout. Ticciati found ebb and flow and a million little felicitous details in Vaughan Williams’s orchestration. ‘I got me flowers’, (like the first song, its text from Herbert’s Easter), was notable for some finely balanced woodwind. ‘Love bade me welcome’ became more of a narration with Keenlyside (and we got a chance to appreciate the strength of his lower register). Incredibly moving, this was probably the highlight of this small cycle. Lovely to hear Vaughan Williams’s harmonies glow in ‘The Call’. Contrasting this, the highly rhythmic, jubilant final ‘Antiphon’ (although not in itself devoid of mystery).
The combination of Ticciati’s textural clarity and Keenlyside’s textual clarity and complete understanding of Vaughan Williams’s expression was a winning one. Interesting to hear the piece minus chorus, too.
The problems lay with the second half, and I am not really referring to the edition, although that is what one should logically discuss first. Many readers will no doubt be familiar with Sir Simon Rattle’s magisterial recording of the four-movement Ninth with the Berliner Philharmoniker of the 2012 performing version of the finale, prepared 1983-2012 by Nicola Samale, John A. Phillips and Giuseppe Mazzuca. This new version is revised by Phillips. It is in many ways necessary to hear this finale, to appreciate how a chorale in the Adagio blossoms, and to appreciate a quote from the Te Deum, too. The new version includes three drafts from May 1898 for the coda, included in their entirety, allowing themes of the first and last movements to combine. A hymn of praise taken from a trumpet theme in the Adagio is transformed into the triumphant ending.
So does it work? Frankly, one needs a good performance of all four movements to tell, and this was far from that. Bruckner’s great cathedral-like structure of a first movement had much to recommend it in terms of sheer performance level (strings in particular) and silences. It was nice to hear so much detail. But silences held little power, and the great, grand climaxes lost emotive force despite the decibels. Ticciati’s Bruckner is in many ways the polar opposite of say Klemperer; Ticciati’s moves, always with no lingering. But that loses the dissonance-laden rhythmic energy of the Scherzo, yes scrunchy but not in any way intimidating. Bruckner’s God (for this symphony is dedicated to the Christian God) clearly had something of the Old Testament tyrant about it (or him/Him) but here what we heard was more like a little slap on the wrist than a thunderbolt. Nice contrasts in the string lyricism, though.
The slow movement (as we should call it rather than finale!) was taken in a fast eight to a bar – none of the Guilini/Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s glowing ascents to Heaven here. Add to that Ticciati allowing the music to sound if it had lost its way at one point (it doesn’t), and one roundly missed the depths of this great movement, despite many excellent individual and sectional contributions (creamy trombones, fine woodwind contributions across the section).
The 20-minute finale is actually a fascinating piece, not least for the jagged nature of much of its material. When it works, it works; when it does not, we get ‘quasi-Bruckner’. Goodness knows Rattle’s recording gives it a proper go and mostly succeeds; after a slightly underplayed first three movements. Ticciati had his work more than cut out: the end felt, after a typical Bruckner build-up, and despite the volume of the final peroration, to be unfortunately rather hollow, the road to the end therefore rather disjointed.
A surprising number of people seemed to leave the hall during the course of the performance, and during the playing at that, more than I have ever seen, perhaps a reflection of lack of engagement with Ticciati’s vision, such as it was. If the LPO seemed to give more to the finale than the other movements, it still felt too little.