BBCPhil/Wigglesworth review – Vaughan Williams celebrations open with style but not enough substance | Classical music


This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. Manchester features prominently in celebrations of his music over the coming months. The Hallé and the BBC Philharmonic share a complete cycle of his symphonies, and the latter orchestra, under Mark Wigglesworth, kicked off proceedings this weekend with a programme examining two essential Vaughan Williams themes – war and the pastoral. Those subjects meet head on in the Third Symphony (published as The Pastoral in 1922, not numbered until later); a work that emits an unease borne of wartime trauma.

Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1951.
Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1951. Photograph: Charles Hewitt/Getty Images

Vaughan Williams described the Pastoral as cast “in four movements, all of them slow”. It’s a curious work, and one that the Philharmonic and Wigglesworth never managed to properly unpack. After an opening hampered by rhythmic drift (a persistent problem through the evening), the eerie solos of the second movement seemed divided in vision – the trumpet, imitating a bugle, deliberately sculpted and full of mellow vibrato; the horn reply edgier and closer to the natural tuning exploited by Britten. Only in the final movement did the symphony’s elegiac but unsettled character begin to shine through. Even then, the performance didn’t definitively answer the ambiguous questions posed by the composer. Were the distant wordless tones of tenor Alessandro Fisher that framed the last movement those of a ghostly soldier or something more serene, a Delian song of the high hills? Either way, they needed to be lighter.

tenor Alessandro Fisher.
Warm stage presence … tenor Alessandro Fisher. Photograph: James Stack

In this particular programme, Ravel’s influence shone through, especially in Vaughan Williams’ lush orchestration of On Wenlock Edge. That inspiration is partly what weakens this version, burying the soloist during the expanse of Bredon Hill. Fisher doesn’t quite have the English song sound nailed – the vowels were frequently Italianate, the timbre heavier – but his warm and easy stage presence complemented some stylish playing from the Philharmonic’s strings in the cycle’s busier sections.

The Fifth Symphony was engaged and energetic through the bouncy rhythms of the Scherzo, but lacking in collective direction in the great deal of slow music that surrounds them. A puzzling start to this thought-provoking composer’s 150th year.

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