Ralph Vaughan Williams remains one of the nation’s favourite composers, and his enduring popularity was very evident at Symphony Hall. There was barely an empty seat in the house as Andrew Manze conducted the CBSO in an evening of ‘Ultimate Vaughan Williams’; a shamelessly indulgent programme consisting of what might be considered his orchestral greatest hits, spanning a twenty-two year period (1908-30) which saw Vaughan Williams establish himself as one of the most important figures on the British classical music scene.
We began with his Overture to The Wasps, originally commissioned to accompany a production of the Aristophanes play at Cambridge University in 1909, which abounds with wonderfully broad, expansive themes of cinematic scope, sounding at times almost like the score for a Western. And the CBSO did justice to the energy inherent in the piece, Manze energetically brandishing his baton with a charisma and deftness obviously infectious to both orchestra and audience.
Next was Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, and although the turnaround of players between the first two pieces was wanting some smoothness, it was definitely worth the negligible wait. It is written for two string orchestras with a solo quartet, which – in the hands of Vaughan Williams – results in a rich and delicious sonority. The fact that several, admittedly more elderly members of the audience appeared to drift off during this piece is, I think, testament to the beauty and subtlety of the music, rather than evidence of anything condemnably soporific there. The thick strings, often moving in parallel fifths, are so typically characteristic of his style that, at times, he seems almost to parody himself, but always remains wholly earnest, creating a sound at once singularly evocative of the English countryside and yet also decidedly European. In the passages for solo viola and violin respectively, the ideas he would fully realise in The Lark Ascending are explicitly audible, but comparatively Fantasia… contains moments that seem to cry out for solo woodwind to burst through and soar lyrically above a texture occasionally clogged by the sheer number of strings the composer employs.
This concert was part of the CBSO:2020 series, which – as the famous orchestra approaches its centenary in six years’ time – features works composed in the decade leading up to their inaugural concert in September 1920. The Lark Ascending, written in 1914 (initially for violin and piano) and arguably Vaughan Williams’s best known work, therefore formed the centrepiece of the evening. And here, unlike in Fantasia…, that desire for otherness is satisfied absolutely. At the moment, say, where the beautiful solo violin might take a phrase too many, the oboe emerges, pure and defiant. It was in this piece, and the final one, where we heard the CBSO, under Manze’s skilful guidance, at their most dexterous and antiphonally fluent. Laurence Jackson was the soloist, and he did an admirable job with a notoriously delicate part, occasionally sounding hollow or airy, but commendably never dispassionate.
The concert concluded with Job – A Masque for Dancing, which Michael Kennedy (in his excellent programme notes) calls ‘a synthesis of various elements in his [RVW’s] musical personality,’ and it was thus perfectly positioned at the end of the programme. By far the most dramatic and ambitious of the evening’s pieces, Job takes the listener on a journey too nuanced to describe in this short review, but one through which the CBSO led us expertly. Jackson – with the other excellent soloists – found full voice here, making his violin sing sweetly with the nostalgic themes of a composer whose place in the hearts of the British concert-going public appears deservedly secure.
by Ben Norris