A hearteningly full Royal Albert Hall was treated to an interesting programme gathering together two famous 'London Symphonies' by Haydn and Vaughan Williams. The only connection to London in Haydn’s last symphony is that it was one of twelve works written for a series of concerts in the capital. In Germany the work is referred to as the Salomon Symphony, named after the promoter who brought Haydn to London in 1795. However, it’s churlish to argue with the combination of two of the most agreeable symphonic works in the repertoire, performed so refreshingly here under the same roof.

Andrew Manze
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Haydn’s Symphony no. 104 in D major, alongside the three final symphonies of Mozart, is at the pinnacle of symphonic writing in the 18th century. It is a perfectly formed work which combines a relaxed sociable confidence with a proto-romantic sense of the poetic and emotional. Andrew Manze and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra were suitably alert to all the layers in the score that make it more than the sum of its parts. The strings were both pert and note solid in the first movement, with the woodwind coloration alert throughout, with the brass adding weight in the concentrated drama of the development section.

Charm and grace were features of the monothematic Andante. Manze's ideal tempo choice kept the music flowing, as in the lilting Menuetto. The folk-like main theme of the finale was playfully presented and the darker moments of the extended development section were emphasised to mirror that of the first movement.

Manze first came to fame performing and conducting early music. His affinity with both the pre-Romantic era repertoire is well rehearsed, so it was initially something of a surprise when he started championing the symphonies of Vaughan Williams. But what a gift it has been for listeners to have his fresh perspective on these important works.

The genesis of RVW's A London Symphony was somewhat protracted. The first version was completed and performed shortly before the onset of war in 1914 and then the score was lost. However, it was reconstructed and performed again later that year. After the war Vaughan Williams made several revisions, never feeling fully satisfied with the results, despite allowing the score to be published in 1925. It was only after the 1933 revision that the composer felt he had fulfilled the works potential and it is this version that has remained in the repertoire.

Manze instantly found the pulse of this most colourful and thematically fertile of symphonies. The long progress up the Thames that opens the work and culminates in the Westminster Chimes, was spine-tinglingly atmospheric. The main Allegro had just the right amount of vulgarity and swagger, while the intimate development section was touching indeed. The progression through the coda was brilliantly handled, saving the most power until the final chord.  

The twilight world of the Lento movement had a sultry quality which created a picture of a lover’s tryst, emphasised by its passionate centre. The busy Scherzo with its tricky doublings in the Ravelian orchestration, saw the BBC SSO at their finest and most attentive to some wonderfully clear headed conducting.

The finale was the movement that most troubled the composer. The apocalyptic climax was mostly a creation of the 1933 revision and it was certainly worth waiting for. Manze again found an ideal path through the movement, gradating the climaxes to carry the maximum impact. The long epilogue was beautifully unhurried and, as it should, suspended time, leading the listener to a world beyond the bustle and drama of city life.