Plans to mark the 150thanniversary of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s birth have been years in the making, but no one could have imagined how prescient last weekend’s Manchester launch event would turn out to be. On a night when Russian tanks were encroaching further into Ukraine, two of the composer’s finest symphonies – both conceived in time of war, both firmly rejecting military bombast – sent a message of hope and a vision of peace out into the anxious air.
Undoubtedly sensing the bleak headlines, the BBC Philharmonic, sharing a new season of RVW’s nine symphonies with the Hallé, played his fifth with a particularly lush intensity, echoing the words of Adrian Boult, who heard its premiere in 1943 and wrote: “Its serene loveliness is completely satisfying in these times and shows, as only music can, what we must work for when this madness is over.”
Conductor Mark Wigglesworth sought to challenge today’s madness by amplifying the rich humanity that flows through this symphony, shaping the expansive first movement to hold us in its tender embrace, profound in its vision of a better world. The Romanza, the real heart of the fifth, was particularly fine, bold and resolute strings turning its noble descending theme into an anthem of consoling reassurance.
Wigglesworth had opened with RVW’s third symphony (1922), the Pastoral, a work that prefigures the fifth in its tranquil survey of an apparent rural idyll, disparaged at the time by composer Peter Warlock as “a cow looking over a gate”. How wrong. This is Vaughan Williams’s musical recollection of France in the first world war. The modal inflections of English folk song give the piece its distinctly bucolic atmosphere, but the countryside it evokes is a battlefield. Recalling his time as an ambulance driver, when he would collect the wounded “night after night”, he wrote: “We went up a steep hill and there was a wonderful Corot-like landscape in the sunset – [the music is] not really lambkins frisking at all, as most people take for granted.”
And so Wigglesworth and the BBC Philharmonic rightly emphasised the bitonal clashes and dark undertones that menace just beneath the surface in this piece. No lambkins here. Instead, a stately, measured reading of a symphony that rarely rouses itself above mezzo-forte, its beautifully played trumpet and horn solos recalling buglers in the trenches and off-stage tenor (Alessandro Fisher) voicing a wordless lament for lost comrades, because no words can adequately express such desolation.
RVW’s studies with Ravel added an iridescent lustre to his already distinctive musical palette, perhaps most evident in his song cycle On Wenlock Edge, sung here with a light, though occasionally overwhelmed, loveliness by Fisher, and accompanied with mercurial energy by Wigglesworth in this impressive opening to the year’s celebrations.
The Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust has worked hard to prime concerts and festivals with his music this year. You are bound to find several near you. And to understand just how deeply RVW’s music runs through the nation’s bloodstream, from June a project entitled From Pub to Pulpit will visit several cathedrals, showing how the composer “borrowed” the folk songs he collected when he edited The English Hymnal. O Little Town of Bethlehem? That’s The Ploughboy’s Dream. Or To Be a Pilgrim? That’s the shanty Our Captain Cried All Hands. Who knew?
It’s hard to challenge the notion that Martha Argerich is our greatest living pianist. At 80, she continues to play with apparently effortless technique and astonishing strength. Yet she has not played a solo concert for 30 years, preferring instead to partner with an orchestra or another pianist, such as Sergei Babayan. Their 2018 recording of his two-piano arrangements of Prokofiev’s ballet and stage music drew much praise, so to hear them play live at Wigmore Hall was a rare treat.
Argerich took the upstage piano, but that did not in any way denote a lesser role. The pair threw themselves into the thunderous opening Prologue from Romeo and Juliet with such intensity it drew gasps from the audience. Thereafter they entranced with the sheer power and dazzling command of their playing. At times, no dancer would have been able to compete with their tempi, and certainly no string section could match the breakneck speed they brought to the Death of Tybalt.
Later, we left the violence behind to hear dreamlike mazurkas, polkas and polonaises from Prokofiev’s unfinished incidental music for Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades, Argerich and Babayan enjoying their harmonic subtleties and quixotic melodies. But it was in Mozart’s sparkling Sonata in D for two pianos that their brilliant partnership was at its most equal. Close your eyes and it was impossible to tell who was playing what line, so seamless was their joyful passing of the baton. Sheer delight.
Star ratings (out of five)
Toward the Unknown Region – RVW150 ★★★★
Sergei Babayan and Martha Argerich ★★★★★