Every time I hear a live performance of one of Vaughan Williams first six symphonies, I am left feeling that this is the greatest of all his symphonies. Each of these works occupies a universe of its own and provides the listener with a satisfying experience. This outing of the Fifth Symphony was no exception and, given the quality of the music-making, the sense of greatness was as strong as I have ever experienced. Mark Wigglesworth and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra were so under the skin of this work that every nuance registered throughout the four movements.

Mark Wigglesworth © Sim Canetty-Clarke
Mark Wigglesworth
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

Written in the early 1940s during the darkest days of the war, its calm exterior was seen as a panacea against the violence and fear of the times. However, it is also a deeply personal work with a passionate core, tinged with doubt and uncertainty. The challenge for a conductor is to uncover all these elements and hold them in balance, so that the fabulous logic of the piece is revealed.

Wigglesworth certainly achieved this balance through perfectly judged tempi and a deep understanding of how to shape the key moments of each movement. In the first, the blissful opening Preludio was poised and mysterious, the cushion of the strings interwoven beautifully, first by the woodwinds and then swelling nobly, almost in the manner of the earlier Tallis Fantasia. The control of the various climaxes that followed was spot on. The Scherzo was taken at a good lick, the tricky rhythmic scuttling of the strings ideally accurate and the emphasis on underlying tension, as it should be.

The wondrous slow movement has never sounded so at ease with itself. Each layer was uncovered with complete naturalness, the RPO evidently fully committed to the work as every department was on top form, particularly the radiant strings. The Finale is the toughest movement to bring off, partly because the slow movement is such a hard act to follow. However, Wigglesworth saw a clear path through its passacaglia structure and the return of the primary theme from the first movement before the epilogue felt like a true apotheosis. The epilogue itself, one of the most ecstatic endings to any symphony, was played with simplicity and humility, rounding off a truly exceptional musical event.

The works in the first half of the concert, though not quite reaching the same heights, were successful on their own terms. Delius wrote his interlude Walk to the Paradise Garden as an afterthought to extend the length of the final act of his opera A Village Romeo and Juliet. It has become one of his most loved works, while the opera has sunk into near oblivion. And you could see why it has remained in the repertoire from the quality of this performance. Its rarefied atmosphere, not a million miles from the Vaughan Williams symphony, was delivered here at an unhurried pace, so that the progress to the final tragic climax seemed inevitable.

The Suite from William Walton’s score to Laurence Olivier's 1944 film of Henry V was also a great success. Interspersed with dialogue from Shakespeare's play, given by actor Samuel West, there was a sense of an apt précis of the whole play. West was so relaxed in front of the orchestra that he was able to encompass all the moods, from warrior to lover, with aplomb. Walton's music shone through in all its splendour as one of the musical glories of those terrible wartime years.

*****