Wednesday 5 November 2008

RVW Symphonies on the SouthBank

On Sunday the Philharmonia Orchestra, under Richard Hickox, did a 3-part programme at the Royal Festival Hall, performing 3 Vaughan Williams Symphonies. It was the penultimate offering in their RVW series this year, the final one is tomorrow (6th November). On Sunday we got the Tallis Fantasia and Symphony no. 9 in the first part, the 3 Shakespeare Songs sung by Philharmonia Voices and Symphony No. 6 in part 2 and then the concert concluded with Symphony No. 5. The subtitle of the concert was Vaughan Williams the Visionary.

By offering the Tallis Fantasia and the 9th Symphony, as in the BBC Symphony Orchestra concert at the Proms this year, we heard what was essentially the first and last of RVW. Hearing it in the improved Festival Hall was a treat, rather than the vast spaces of the Albert Hall. Whilst these spaces can be effective, having the Tallis Fantasia close up, especially with the luxurious string sound of the Philharmonia, was a real treat. In the 9th Symphony the saxophones seemed to be play with slightly less vibrato than their BBC colleagues, which was a great improvement. Hickox has developed into a fine RVW conductor and his account of the visionary 9th was engrossing.

When asked about the final movement of the 6th Symphony, RVW quoted Prospero 'We are such stuff as dreams are made of' so it seemed entirely appropriate to pre-fix the symphony with the Shakespeare songs, perfectly sung by Philharmonia Voices (interestingly with 3 counter-tenors and 1 mezzo-soprano on the alto line). The symphony itself was perhaps not quite as engrossing as No. 9, but still a fine performance. As usual with the final movement, I felt that everything could have been even quieter, though the orchestra showed fine control. Hickox's reading made the movement seem a little warmer than usual; more Prospero's dreams than a vision of the cold war about to engulf Europe.

Then finally the 5th symphony, always a moving piece with its echoes of The Pilgrims Progress. There were a couple of moments when I did wonder whether the players were getting a little tired (the concert had around 150 minutes of music in it). But as ever, the 5th Symphony with its glorious cor anglais solo worked its magic.

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