From the first notes of Elgar’s youthful Froissant Overture filling Philharmonic Hall, it was clear this was going to be an evening of inspired music-making from Andrew Manze and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Despite not being programmatic, Manze sought out the Straussian elements with lavish orchestral colours. Balance and phrasing were sympathetic and interesting without being fussy. The inner lines – especially the violas – were phrased eloquently, rising out of the textures without sounding overly pronounced, all testament to the conductor’s skill at balancing strings, in a rousing performance.

Andrew Manze
© Benjamin Ealovega

A rather unusual and underrated work of the 20th century completed the first half. Karol Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto no. 2 is not a piece that appears on programmes regularly. Premiered 89 years ago to the day in 1933, this 20-minute, single-movement work packs a substantial musical punch. Joining Manze and the RLPO was violinist Sebastian Bohren, whose tone from the outset was silvery, maintaining it even in the most technically demanding parts of the cadenza; with its stopped notes and harmonics, it was impressive and expressive in equal measures.

There was complete trust between soloist and conductor, Manze navigating the changes of metre and tempi with certainty. What came across most was the mutual admiration and understanding of the work both musicians have and the ability to express and communicate it powerfully. After the intensity of the musical journey there was an enthusiastic reception testament to the remarkable musical experience both had created and acknowledgment of the RLPO's extraordinary playing. 

A brief address from Manze about the two Vaughan Williams works on the programme came after the interval. Speaking with warmth and humour, he said for those who knew the Fifth Symphony it would be “like meeting an old friend, and for those encountering it for the first time, you’ll make a new friend”. Manze certainly wasn’t wrong. The Running Set, which preceded the symphony, served as an appropriate link between the Szymanowski and the Fifth.

Manze’s approach to Vaughan Williams' war-time symphony has changed from his earlier performances, finding new emotional depths and colours. The entire work was given space, more so than previously. In doing so, Manze shaped each line with care, musicality and intrigue. In the opening Preludio, he evoked an air of mystery, which prevailed throughout with such a cool palette. What shone through in the jaunty but sinister Scherzo was the judicious balancing of the orchestra. The voicing was superb, with the brass being handled with delicacy. The highlight of the performance was the third movement Romanza, which was just magical. Manze found the deepest poise and anguish which just washed over one. It wasn’t without the odd blemish of intonation, but how it spoke to the heart was nothing short of remarkable. Vaughan Williams’ take on the Passacaglia becomes very loose in the final movement. Manze found a triumphal majesty here in knowing the meandering twists and turns intimately, holding the silence perfectly, in a quiet moment of reflection.

The agnostic Vaughan Williams certainly conveyed a spirituality in this symphony. What Manze evoked was something deeper, a transcendence, elevating his “old friend” to a plane beyond human comprehension. There were members of the audience so moved they were in tears by the sheer depth of emotion in the performance. And in the month that would have seen the composer turn 150, what finer birthday present could this be?