“Toward the Unknown Region”, the BBC Philharmonic and Hallé’s joint celebration of the symphonies of Ralph Vaughan Williams, here continued with the satisfyingly geographical pairing of the Seventh and Second Symphonies.

John Wilson conducts the BBC Philharmonic
© Jenny Whitham | BBC Philharmonic

The Sinfonia antartica received its first performance in 1953, a few hundred metres along the road from the Bridgewater Hall in a gentler era in which melting icecaps had yet to be discovered. Here, in the hands of John Wilson and the BBC Philharmonic, it was an unapologetically bleak affair, with every windswept glacier realised with cinematic high definition. The ladies of the Manchester Chamber Choir and Sarah Fox provided wordless, Neptunian choral effects with unwavering purity of sound, Fox’s well-rounded soprano floating across the auditorium from behind the choir in the shadows of the organ.

Everything else about the performance embraced the bleak and brutal, from the mighty brass tuttis of the outer movements to the tirelessly lively trombone acrobatics of the Scherzo. The monumental chords of the third movement shifted as one, suggestive of unrelenting glacial progress, and at the floor-shaking climax the organ kicked, the timpani roared and the brass blazed across the hall. The bleak darkness of the fourth movement was a stark contrast to the martial themes of the fifth, though ultimately it was the distant howl of the wind machine which had the last word, closing an Antartica which was both geographically and ecologically grim.

The BBC Philharmonic and Manchester Chamber Choir
© Jenny Whitham | BBC Philharmonic

The “London” Symphony couldn’t have been a much sharper contrast, fizzing with life and human tragedy from start to finish. The symphony’s misty opening scene burst into life with gusto, wailing out the tutti orchestral “Have a banana” and bustling through lively streets in a rowdy, breathless dash through the first movement. The cor anglais and viola solos of the second movement were realised with attractive colour and nostalgia, and the hushed, moonlit interplay between strings and horn came at a seemingly impossible pianissimo. In the third movement the crisp woodwind solos chattered with larger-than-life character, making the tragedy of the finale’s solemn march all the more affecting, with a vast climax which once again shook the floor.

Although one Vaughan Williams cycle has only recently been recorded in the city, on the evidence of tonight’s performance a full cycle from Wilson would be an enticing prospect. At the start of the evening, he introduced an unexpected pre-concert encore of the prelude from Vaughan Williams’ music to the film The 49th Parallel. It was shrewd and elegantly noble curtain-raiser, and played before the headline acts of the two vast symphonies, detracted from neither as a conventional encore might have done. 

****1