The SCO doesn’t do very much Britten, but the last time Andrew Manze was with them was to conduct the Frank Bridge Variations, and I have to say that this thrilling Les Illuminations has to qualify as the finest thing I’ve heard from them all season. Every component was so expertly crafted, every line so perfectly chiselled, that when they all slotted together the scale of the triumph seemed to have an air of inevitability about it. Manze harnessed the SCO strings as though they were straining at the leash, the violins and violas seeming to face off against one another in the opening Fanfare, searing into their lines of attack until the soprano soloist called time on their conflict with arresting clarity. I’ve always thought that Les Illuminations sounds better with a tenor, but after hearing Sarah Fox I don’t think I’ll ever say that again. Her command of the tessitura bristled with confidence, like a surfer surmounting a series of impossible waves. But with that total security came great beauty of tone, summiting the final pianissimo of “Phrase” with extraordinary delicacy, and singing “Royauté” with a sly wink in the voice that I found very winning. Throw in her wiltingly beautiful tone in “Being beauteous”, and I think it’s hard to imagine this cycle being sung better by a soprano. 

Andrew Manze
© Benjamin Ealovega

Manze and the orchestra more than held their own, though. After that thrilling opening the excitement, if anything, increased with a “Villes”, so energetic that it made the scalp prickle, and an “Antique” that played the languorous violin line against the mischievous thrumming of the lower strings. The sensuous descents of “Interlude” prepared the way for a final “Départ” of intoxicating beauty with a languid sense of farewell, and even a twinge of regret. This was a performance that will live in my memory for a long time. 

So, for that matter, will this Vaughan Williams Symphony no. 5. Scored for the smallest forces of any of the composer’s symphonies, it fits a chamber orchestra like a glove, and when you combine that with Manze’s experience with this composer’s symphonies (he’s mid-way through cycles in concert with the BBCSSO and on record with the RLPO), you have a winner. The radiant first movement gave way to a filigree Scherzo, and the symphony culminated in a light-hearted Passacaglia with a deeply serene coda; but the highlight was a sensationally beautifully slow movement, with knockout tone from both the cor anglais soloist and the violins and violas at the bottom of their register. How lovely, also, to use Manze’s own arrangement of Purcell as a lead-in. Tailored to match the symphony’s opening without a break, it worked brilliantly.

So did Frank Martin’s Passacaille, chosen to open the concert as a mirror to the Vaughan Williams Passacaglia that would close it, though Manze’s opening chat didn’t exactly sell it, telling us that “You’re going to hear in a minute why it’s not played very much!” Actually, I rather liked its swings from wiry introspection to impassioned urgency, and the choice to play with little vibrato gave it an extra sense of wilting forlorn that reminded me of Metamorphosen. That intelligent piece of programming set the seal on a super evening. Well done, everybody.