This year Andrew Manze completed his cycle of Vaughan Williams symphonies with the brilliant musicians of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, an orchestra which was nominated for the 2019 Orchestra of the Year Award by the English-language Gramophone magazine (but unfortunately didn’t win). It is a recording that has sometimes disoriented critics and music lovers for all sorts of reasons, but it is a major recording release that constitutes a real contribution to the discography of Vaughan Williams’s 7th and 9th symphonies.
Vaughan Williams’s Seventh Symphony, also known as Sinfonia Antartica, is based on a film, Scott of the Antarctic, which chronicles Robert Falcon Scott’s tragic expedition to the Antarctic, a film for which Vaughan Williams composed the score and whose subject impressed him so strongly that he decided to write a symphony from the theme composed for the film. The symphony is divided into 5 movements, each movement being preceded by a literary quote, which most conductors decide to omit in the recordings so as not to break the musical flow. Andrew Manze chose, like Boult and Prévin before him, not only to have these quotes recorded by Timothy West, but to include them in every movement. Some critics have hated this, blaming the English conductor for these ‘unwelcome spoken word intrusions’, especially between the third and fourth movements, where the composer specifies that these movements must be linked, whereas in this album the narration of Timothy West covers the last chord played by the orchestra at the end of the third movement.
Once this problem has been overcome, the interpretation given by Andrew Manze, the Royal Liverpool choir and orchestra, and soprano Rowan Pierce is harsh and dense, with darker and more threatening colours than the cold colours usually present in other interpretations (as for example in the recording by André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra). One feels like entering the dark night of an adventure whose sure end is death. The RLPO is impressive by its density and homogeneity (this is all the more striking when compared to their recent recording of the Enigma Variations, which sounds much lighter, clearer and more transparent). Yet despite this density, the orchestral details are not melted in the mass, but are on the contrary clearly noticeable.
The choice of recording the Ninth symphony with the seventh seems very logical when we listen to the twilight rendition of this symphony by Andrew Manze and the Liverpool orchestra, the two symphonies seem to form a musical block of great darkness. It is this twilight atmosphere that, in my opinion, probably inspired Andrew Manze in the choice of extremely slow tempi in the two outward movements of the Ninth Symphony, a choice that disconcerted and disappointed a number of music lovers. If you want an overview of the Vaughan Williams 9th Symphony discography, I suggest you read this @deeplyclassical twitter feed for important recordings of this work.
Although the composer did not give a program to this symphony, the manuscript of the work shows that he was inspired by Thomas Hardy’s sublime novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, a deeply tragic and pessimistic novel. As Lewis Foreman explains in the booklet accompanying the disc, the first movement, Moderato maestoso, was first entitled the « Wessex Prelude », in reference to the novel by Hardy, which explains the particularly macabre sonorities of this first movement, beautifully performed by the Liverpudlian musicians. The slowness of the tempo adopted for this movement expresses with great force and emotion the idea of an implacable destiny to which the heroine of Hardy’s novel can not escape. The second movement, introduced to the sad and painful sound of the flugelhorn, is abruptly interrupted by a threatening march, and can also evoke another episode from Hardy’s novel, the arrest and execution of Tess. Again, it is the density and dark colors of the orchestra that impress and bring out the tragic strength of Vaughan Williams’ music. As for the scherzo, it shows the excellence of the woodwind, brass and percussion sections of the Liverpool orchestra, their ability to express irony and sarcasm in a remarkable way after all these years spent recording the music of Shostakovich. This movement is marked heavy Allegro, contrasted by its rapidity with other movements, and recalls certain moments of other works by Vaughan Williams (Pilgrim’s Progress, Sir John in Love and Five Tudor Portraits). The last movement, the Andante tranquillo, is of great ambiguity, divided into two parts with a very melancholic first part, introduced by a plaintive melody played by the violins, and a second more lyrical part introduced by the violas, which gradually transforms into three powerful climactic moments, before the music fades away to give way to the silence of death, which made Vaughan Williams’s wife say:
I thought, well, this is the end of Ralph’s life and there I can see a turning point. It is leading out into another place. It is extraordinary.