“It’s not really lambkins frisking at all,” protested Ralph Vaughan Williams, writing to Ursula Wood about his Pastoral Symphony in 1938. Critics and fellow composers hadn’t taken kindly to the symphony, premiered in 1922: “rolling over and over in a ploughed field on a wet day” (Hugh Allen); “cool greys and greens” (Constant Lambert); or “like a cow looking over a gate” (Philip Heseltine). They couldn’t have been further from the truth. The symphony was inspired by his wartime experiences in France, serving in the Royal Army Medical Corps. The bugler he heard practising, accidentally playing a seventh instead of an octave, was direct inspiration for the trumpet cadenza in the second movement. As such, the “Pastoral” made a fitting – and poignant – conclusion to this prom, entitled “Lest we forget”, the latest to commemorate the start of the First World War.

Andrew Manze © Chris Christodoulou | Intermusica
Andrew Manze
© Chris Christodoulou | Intermusica

Andrew Manze led the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in a triptych of Vaughan Williams symphonies (4-6) that was a highlight of the 2012 season. They wove the same magic here, the strings positively glowing throughout. The symphony’s opening pages, with undulating woodwinds, is reminiscent of Ravel, with whom Vaughan Williams had studied; this really is his most Gallic of orchestrations. Manze allowed the music to breathe and unfold naturally, never pushing forward too strongly. I wondered if the trumpet cadenza towards the end of the second movement wasn’t a tad flat, but if it was an E flat natural trumpet (as specified in the score), then difficulties in intonation around the seventh harmonic can be expected.

The wordless solo in the final movement is usually sung by a soprano, but can also be sung by a tenor (the ever practical Vaughan Williams even sanctioned a clarinet in the event that no soloist were available). Given the nature of the concert, remembering the young men who went to the front, never to return, the option of a tenor was apt. However, the composer does specify that the soloist is ‘distant’ and I don’t think the console of the organ loft was necessarily distant enough. Allan Clayton sang mellifluously, but placing him in the Gallery would have led to a more ethereal, fitting close to such a fine performance.

If the Vaughan Williams was inspired by the horrors of the War, the first half of the concert contained music by three composers who lost their lives in the trenches. Australian-born Frederick Kelly, winner of Olympic rowing gold in 1908, survived Gallipoli only to perish in the last days of the Battle of the Somme. George Butterworth had fallen in the same battle three months previously. German Rudi Stephan took a bullet to the brain in the trenches of Galicia on 29 September 1915. To make matters worse, most of Stephan’s scores were destroyed by Allied bombing during the Second World War. His Music for Orchestra of 1912 (there is an earlier piece with the same title) made for an uncertain concert opener, moving in fits and starts from lugubrious note spinning to energetic fugue. It had the feel of a Liszt tone poem, but without the bombast.

Kelly’s Elegy for strings was immensely touching, composed as his tribute to his friend, the poet Rupert Brooke, with whom he served. Kelly was one of the party which buried him. Manze and the BBC Scottish strings applied tender lyricism to the almost Tallis Fantasia-like textures, with daring use of pianissimi considering the Albert Hall’s cavernous acoustic.

The highlight of the first half was undoubtedly Butterworth’s set of six songs from A.E. Housmann’s A Shropshire Lad, written before the war but tinged with a dark premonition of “the lads that will die in their glory and never be old”. They are normally heard in the recital room rather than the concert hall, but Phillip Brookes’ ever-sensitive orchestration and Roderick Williams’ clarity of diction meant that every syllable registered. Williams has a gift for storytelling through song and his easy communication and ability to spin phrases earned him a warm ovation. The legato of “Loveliest of trees”, prefaced by a gentle clarinet solo, and the characterization of “Is my team ploughing?” were outstanding, but it was “The lads in their hundreds” which had many in the audience fighting back the tears.

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