Pairing two ‘London’ symphonies (Haydn’s 104th and Vaughan Williams’ 2nd) seems like a neat programming idea in terms of theme. There’s also certainly a contrast between Haydn’s strict, classical absolute model (sonata-form ringing out) and Vaughan Williams’ more generous, programme-music-heavy treatment from nearly 120 years later. But using the same orchestra (with a core of the same instruments) for both works in today’s world of historically-informed performance presents a challenge in terms of the earlier symphony.
To some extent the challenge was met by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Andrew Manze – possibly due to Manze’s considerable experience in the world of baroque music. The tempi in the Haydn were sprightly enough (and certainly, there was no resemblance to those ponderous full-orchestra recordings of Haydn symphonies from the 1950s). Manze coaxed a great deal of colour out of the orchestra in terms of dynamic and speed (the use of dramatic pauses between Haydn’s portentous opening statements; the delicate woodwind and string decorations of the melody at the end of the second movement; the pull-ups in the scherzo’s trio section). But… but… the rich strings, modern brass and pedal timps (despite the use of hard sticks) seemed out of place. It was timbre more than anything that told – where these days, we are used to an edgy, slightly raw sound to works of this period, we were given a lusher account. The playing was, by and large, excellent (although there were one or two problems with intonation in the strings in the final movement), but the ‘singing strings’ treatment leached some of the bite and vibrancy out of the piece.
The opulence of the acoustic, however, was not wasted, as when the orchestra expanded in the second half for the Vaughan Williams, the sound-world created was spot-on for the evocation of London’s foggy mornings, busy shopping streets, and the final departure from the city via its broadening river. Again, Manze’s intuitive understanding of tempo and dynamic was to the fore, such that the opening of the symphony was rendered almost formless, leading – via some teasing dynamic shifts – to the splendidly brassy confidence of the ‘music-hall’ melody. The symphony’s second movement was perfection itself, and full of textural variety: a horn-call in the fog as muffled and distant as you’d want; the iterations of the lavender-seller’s call echoed across different instruments giving the impression of them being streets away from each other; the little pause before the solo violin to allow its lonely contemplation to sound; the gloriously broad treatment of the grand theme (and the all-important diminuendo-pause-crescendo into its second sumptuous statement). The scherzo/nocturne was bubbly and well-controlled, with an almost nautical clip to the triplets in the brass, and its close to an almost-imperceptible chord was special indeed.
The march theme in the fourth movement benefited from a nicely-judged opposition of attack: the strings broad and legato; the winds much more detached. The return to formless fogginess at the end of the movement was subtle and effective, reminding the listener of the textures at the opening of the symphony: gently rocking woodwind, muffled horn-calls, muddily moving strings and a final farewell from muted trumpets, horns and solo violin.
In all, a well-performed concert, but perhaps a misjudged programme.