A baking Albert Hall hosts a blazing performance.
The record temperature with its concomitant travel disruption and general lassitude led to a sparsely attended early Prom on Tuesday evening, but for those who turned up, an hour of astringent music (the fourth symphonies by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Michael Tippett), masterfully interpreted by the BBC Philharmonic under Andrew Davis provided a much-needed pick-me-up.
Nobody quite knows why Vaughan Williams moved away from the lush style of his first three symphonies to summon dissonance and agitation in his fourth; the composer himself rejected suggestions of any particular influence; perhaps he simply looked at the more experimental outputs of his contemporaries and decided that he too could write a work that emptied concert halls. Certainly, the fourth symphony is full of enough bombast and harmonic challenge to unsettle many listeners, but a closer examination demonstrates that Vaughan Williams couldn’t help being himself. The work is still full of his characteristic signatures: passages of three against two; rich writing for strings; dynamic and modal shifts; even the galumphing rhythms of the Scherzo seem to be drawn from Sir John in Love. It is as though the symphony were a photographic negative of his earlier work – the patterns and picture still visible, but transmuted through a shade swap.
Clearly, Davis and the orchestra recognised all of this, and gave us a magnificent account that was, notwithstanding its superficial unapproachability, full of timbral nuance, precisely observed dynamic diversity, and emotional energy. The contrast in string tone between the diaphanous but unsettled violin and cello passage in the first movement, and the more sumptuous string passage – with the emergence of a lonely oboe – in the second was exquisitely observed. The sinister brass at the opening of the second movement carried just a hint of the wistful; the passage for wandering flute over muted trombones later in the movement was judged perfectly for effect; the dousing of the triumphant brass by gnarly harmonies in the third movement was subtly spotlit; the final, calamitous fugue served with accuracy and bravura.
“…Davis and the orchestra… gave us a magnificent account…”
Sometimes the long ago decisions around programming can serendipitously tap into future zeitgeist, and the choice of Michael Tippett’s fourth symphony was one such. A meditation on life (and death), its genesis was the composer’s viewing a film of the development of a rabbit embryo, and in the light of the recent Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade (set also against the fact that this was a commission from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra), one could not help considering a new dimension to the work.
The watchword here was clarity. It’s a hot mess of a symphony, a set of seven seamless sections full of disparate influences that is as much an exploration of orchestral textures as anything else, yet Davis and the orchestra never allowed chaos to reign, and presented all its elements with definition and exactitude. We were treated to first class intonation from the brass (and those built-up horn chords were glorious), virtuoso co-ordination from the busy tuned percussion in the opening movement; deft, briefly comic slide trombones. The slow movement gave us, perhaps, what the earlier Vaughan Williams didn’t – a brief pastoral moment via a yearning cello melody over contrabassoon, double basses and twinkling percussion. And it was these odd instrumental combinations that the orchestra really brought to the fore: a flute playing in twelfths, for example, with a bass clarinet.
The symphony is punctuated with sections of the sound of breathing. Tippett gave no indication as to how this might be achieved, and over the years, several solutions (including wind machine and electronic synthesis) have been tried. In this version, the breathing was produced live by session singer CJ Neale; this proved to be the best solution of all, and provided strong emotional resonance. That the whole act of breathing has recently become a health issue (specifically on an airless two days, but more generally around an airborne respiratory disease) added even more topicality to the performance.
• Full details of the BBC Proms season 2022 can be found here.