After three splendid concerts by the BBC Philharmonic that presented five of Vaughan Williams’ symphonies, the Hallé has now taken over the Bridgewater Hall’s cycle to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Conducted by John Wilson, who had already had one RVW outing with the BBC Phil, the Hallé began its offering with the most enigmatic and least played of the nine, the last. Vaughan Williams was reticent about explaining what his music might “mean”. It is known that his Symphony no. 9 in E minor was originally associated with Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d'Urbervilles, but the composer abandoned any programmatic links at an early stage, leaving the symphony to be understood in purely musical terms.

John Wilson
© Alex Burns | The Hallé

The stage was extended to accommodate a huge orchestra, including those rare visitors a flugelhorn and three saxophones, which gave a unique timbre to the music. The whole symphony seems to be looking forward, as if striving for something new. The subtitle of this symphony cycle “Toward the Unknown Region” seemed more apt than ever. The Ninth is remarkably concise, too. In the space of about half an hour we were taken on a journey through barely understood landscapes depicted with all the resources of a large orchestra.

Wilson is evidently an enthusiast for the work and conducted an intense and personal account. The first movement felt monumental and often disturbing, Wilson bringing out the contrasts between the robust and the delicate and differentiating his orchestral colours. There were reminiscences of the earlier Vaughan Williams – not just echoes of folksong-inflected pastoral landscapes, but also the anger of the Fourth Symphony and even the bleakness of the Sinfonia antarticabut all in a new guise. Likewise the second movement gave us the juxtaposition of a lyrical melody for flugelhorn and what the composer described as a “barbaric” march and a reflective middle section, after which the march seemed all the more aggressive when it returned. Wilson conjured up some remarkable sounds and rhythmic excitement in the Scherzo, and then the lyrical but mysterious finale challenged our expectations. Finally three huge arresting chords disappeared into nothingness. A stunning performance of a remarkable work.

John Wilson conducts The Hallé
© Alex Burns | The Hallé

The second half was devoted to a performance of that ever-popular orchestral showpiece, Holst’s The Planets. Like the Vaughan Williams Ninth, it was also for a very large orchestra and makes great use of contrasting groups of instruments. Again the players of the Hallé gave a virtuoso performance. The Planets may be familiar, but they have lost none of their power to shock, amaze and delight since their first performance a little over a century ago. The relentless rhythms of Mars still feel disturbing. Wilson and the Hallé filled the hall with this aggressive, violent music. The ensuing gentle Venus seemed all the more peaceful in contrast. 

Wilson brought out many details that I had hardly been aware of before, in particular in his agile account of Mercury and the serene central tune in Jupiter, contrasting with the jollity surrounding it. The quiet, mysterious Saturn is always amazing; tonight the combination of harp chords, growling double basses and the build-up to a mighty climax were stunning. A particular highlight was prominent brass in the galumphing dance of Uranus. The wordless choir in Neptune emerged mysteriously from behind the stage while the singers remained out of sight. Their voices faded into nothing – a truly mystical ending to another fine performance.