Prom 46: Vaughan Williams Symphonies 4, 5 & 6

Andrew Manze and the BBC Scottish SO delight in a rare VW treble

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In his famous, if misguided, analysis in the early 1920s, composer Peter Warlock reflected that Vaughan Williams’s style was ‘just a little too much like a cow looking over a gate’. Hmmm. I’d love to know what Warlock, who died in 1930, would have imagined said bovines doing had he ever got to hear VW’s Symphonies Nos 4, 5 and 6 – running manically round a field, perhaps, dive-bombing each other off trees, maybe, or simply lying back, legs in the air and looking up into the sky, reflecting on the bleakness of the abattoir and beyond.

Premiered in 1935, ’43 and ’48 respectively, the three Symphonies vividly capture both the frame of mind of the composer himself and the turbulent times in which he was living. For all VW’s protestations, specifically about the Fourth and Sixth, that he wanted these Symphonies to be treated as pieces of music just on their own terms, the urge to read between the lines, conjuring up themes and messages, is fairly irresistible.

Hearing all three in order in one Prom was a rare treat. Here was a brave bit of programming that worked superbly, in part due to the sheer variety of the three works, in terms of both mood and material, but also to some terrific playing from an on-form BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Manze.

It seems somehow strange seeing Manze, period instrument champion extraordinaire and one of the most affably easy-going people you could ever meet, tackling the fury of large-scale symphonic Vaughan Williams – for me, he’s all about the nuances of solo Bach and the charms of chamber music. And there’s the danger of pre-conception. Did I really think that the brass in the vitriolic opening movement of the Fourth could have been a little less gentlemanly, or was I simply choosing to believe it, given my perceptions of who was in charge? I suspect the latter.

But then, maybe one can also credit Manze’s chamber background for his deftness at highlighting detail: that heavily pronounced stepping bassline in the lower strings gave the second movement of the Fourth an unmatched eeriness; the horns that open the Fifth didn’t just disappear into the background as so often, but continued to float serenely above the orchestra; and, in the Sixth, the creepy ‘ghost-town’ saxophone solo swung with a rare menace.

Manze paced all three Symphonies expertly, too, never rushing headlong through the rowdier moments, never lingering self-indulgently in the more reflective ones. And while the Proms has seen many performances of the Fifth in their time – not least the premiere itself – few will have featured a Romanza as exquisitely handled and sensitively played as this.

At the very end, the closing chords of the Sixth’s desolate finale were met with a lengthy, rapt silence by the audience, only eventually broken by rapturous applause. A hugely memorable Prom. Score? Vaughan Williams 3 Cows 0.