Glancing at the programme for this, the first of three concerts by the London Philharmonic Orchestra celebrating the 150th anniversary of Vaughan Williams, an older relative ruminated on how attitudes to the composer had shifted over the last decades, to the point where there is not just respect, but great admiration and affection for RVW which extends far beyond one or two works popularised by assorted listeners’ charts on the radio. An excellent example of this gradual re-examination of the composer was seen in the highlight of this concert, the Symphony no. 9 in E minor. A piece that was far from beloved when it premiered in the late 1950s, the evening’s conductor Andrew Manze deems it to be one of the composer’s great masterpieces and led a performance that made an excellent case for that argument.

Andrew Manze conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra
© London Philharmonic Orchestra

Firstly, however, the old chestnuts, two works which, to the ears of the wider public, inexorably tower over anything else that Vaughan Williams wrote. The Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis launched the evening. Clean cello sounds cut through the gentle undulating of the violins, with Manze hitting upon the pulse of the work very early on. The highlights were the solo passages of Richard Waters’ viola and Pieter Schoeman’s violin, elegantly played, delicately balanced.

Before proceeding to The Lark Ascending, Daniel Pioro joined the orchestra for the London premiere of Tom Coult’s Pleasure Garden: concerto for violin and orchestra. Coult’s work is a strange piece: divided into four movements, the composition was inspired by ‘natural spaces’ within urban areas or in their orbit. By far the most impressive of the movements was the first, Starting to Rain – Zennyo Ryūō appears, which gave us a beguiling soundscape, percussion delivering raindrops laden with foreboding. The colour was appealing; Pioro’s playing had a sweetness which contrasted with a slight sour tone from the orchestra. Bursts of frenetic energy lashed out at the audience and one had a sense of something truly momentous being depicted. Dyeing the lake blue for Queen Victoria started intriguingly, muted sound seeping from the stage, but it became repetitive and struggled to develop. Pioro delivered a startling lyrical opening to Francesco Landini serenades the birds and his dialogue with the orchestra in the final movement was deftly delivered.

Daniel Pioro, Andrew Manze and the London Philharmonic Orchestra
© London Philharmonic Orchestra

Pioro returned after the interval for The Lark Ascending and brought a strikingly modern edge, a touch of steel to the bowing and a finale that avoided descending into that overtly maudlin or tawdry manner which can be tiresome if overdone, while maintaining a beauty in line. The balance between soloist and orchestra was spot on – one senses that Pioro is an amenable partner – and Manze packed colour into the piece.

Despite a career so heavily based in the Baroque, Manze is increasingly becoming a Vaughan Williams specialist and his performance of the Ninth had a complexity that suggests a deep understanding of the work. The most striking feature was that, in a work with so much weight and orchestral furore, Manze was able to bring a sense of beauty to the piece, particularly in the first movement which glowed, the string sound entirely clear and full, the sections in total harmony. Manze’s grip on the orchestra and his judicious tempi avoided a brass-heavy interpretation which allowed for some of the colour from the woodwind to be audible even in the strongest tutti moments. Manze whipped the orchestra up to a thrilling climax in the fourth movement, the brass searingly good, before letting the orchestral sound gently ebb away. I cannot recall a performance of this symphony with such verve and sheer class.

****1