Manchester’s two main orchestras, the BBC Philharmonic and The Hallé, have teamed up to celebrate 150 years since the birth of Ralph Vaughan Williams by presenting a cycle of all nine of his symphonies. There are six concerts at the Bridgewater Hall with four different conductors between now and the middle of May. All are being recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3. It all began with a splendid concert given by the BBC Philharmonic under Mark Wigglesworth, who paired the Third and the Fifth.

The BBC Philharmonic in Bridgewater Hall
© James Stack

The “Pastoral” Symphony was initially derided as mere depiction of the English landscape but its origins lie in the devastated landscape of France during the First World War where Vaughan Williams served as an ambulance driver. It has come to be considered one of the composer’s most profound works. There is no actual representation of scenes or events, more a distillation of feelings or recollections. Wigglesworth gave the music space to breathe, making the most of the rich sounds of the large orchestra. He allowed the music to unfold at a leisurely pace, to reveal its austere beauties through impassioned playing from the BBC Philharmonic, with some fine solos, notably the prominent trumpet in the second movement, recalling the sound of a military bugler. The wordless lament over a timpani roll which started the finale was devastatingly moving, as was its return with the accompaniment of violins alone. Vaughan Williams believed that music was to be felt rather than described or analysed. Wigglesworth proved to be an inspired communicator who presented the half-lights, suggestions and impressions of this symphony so that the audience could experience it on their own terms.

Mark Wigglesworth
© James Stack

Like the Third, the Fifth Symphony has connections with wartime, written during World War 2 and first performed in 1943. And yet the Fifth is a much warmer, less desolate work. From hearing its opening I would not have been surprised if it had also been designated “pastoral”. Again we had fine string playing and Wigglesworth forged the great climax and serene ending of the first movement into a thing of great beauty. The following Scherzo was eerie with a more astringent middle section. The peaceful third movement (Romanza), derived from music for his then unfinished opera based on The Pilgrim’s Progress, was music of peace, comfort and solace. Wigglesworth ensured that it spoke straight to the audience. He built up to the grand climax in the finale and its transformation into a radiant conclusion.

Alessandro Fisher, Mark Wigglesworth and the BBC Philharmonic
© James Stack

In between the symphonies we had something on a smaller scale but no less powerful. Alessandro Fisher, who had sung the solo in the finale of the Pastoral, rejoined the orchestra for On Wenlock Edge. His voice was more robust and richer than many singers of this cycle, who often sound as if they belong in a church. Fisher expressed all the deep emotion of A E Housman’s verse and his exemplary enunciation made for a stunning experience. There was much more direct depiction of nature here than in the two symphonies; for example, the orchestra conjured up the wind in first song and the bells in Bredon Hill. 

This was a remarkable evening of music from Britain’s greatest symphonist and augurs well for the remainder of the cycle.