Tuesday 3 June 2008

RVW Royal Festival Hall

Saturday 31st May saw the second concert of the Philharmonia's Ralph Vaughan Williams festival at the South Bank, an event which lasts from now until November and encompasses all the symphonies, staged performances of The Pilgrim's Progress at Sadler's Wells and a number of smaller scale events and talks. In addition to the complete programme being presented in London, large portions of it are being given in various other locations around the country. All of the concerts are being conducted by Richard Hickox.

The Festival opened with the Sea Symphony and the Sinfonia Antarctica, Saturday's concert presented the 2nd and 8th Symphonies, plus The Lark Ascending with Andrew Marwood as the solo violin.

I have always found RVW 8 and 9 rather puzzling and one of the benefits of this series was that I will get to hear both of them live, something that I have never been able to do before. The Philharmonia performance of RVW 8, with all its tuned percussion and Bartokian type division of the middle 2 movements into one for the wind and one for strings, was coherent and convincing, it certainly didn't feel like a work rarely played. Hickox relished the score's unusual colours and brought out its strain of mysticism.

Marwood's performance of The Lark Ascending was ravishing.

After the interval came the 2nd Symphony, the London Symphony, in the original version. Hickox brought out the multifarious continental influences in the score, so that this was well and truly a symphony to sit beside continental models such as Mahler.

The original version, which is some 20 minutes longer than RVW's preferred revised version, has some stunningly lovely passages though it does ramble a little. At around an hour the symphony is long, but Hickox and the Philharmonia never made you feel they lingered unnecessarily and Hickox had a good feel for the overall structure. His performance always seemed to be going somewhere. There were one or two moments when the symphony took me by surprise as a familiar passage led to enchanting but unfamiliar details.

The Royal Festival Hall wasn't full but there was a very large and very enthusiastic audience including rather more young people than I would have expected. The next instalment in the festival is The Pilgrims Progress in June.

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