The London Philharmonic is marking the 150th anniversary of the birth of Ralph Vaughan Williams in three concerts this autumn. Andrew Manze conducted the first of them, allowing a London audience a sample of the outstanding VW performances he has been producing in recent seasons both in concert and on disc with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. The main work here was the Ninth Symphony, but there was also space for two very well known works, the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and The Lark Ascending.
The antiseptic acoustic of the Festival Hall is hardly ideal for the Tallis Fantasia, whose carefully terraced textures were conceived for the warm expanses of Gloucester Cathedral. But with all three string choirs – quartet, ensemble and orchestral strings – obliged to occupy the same platform space, Manze’s performance concentrated instead on revealing inner detail, all of it, like the solo viola line that’s woven around one of the final statements of the main theme, lovingly shaped.
There was the same care over orchestral detail in The Lark Ascending too, though the centre of attention was naturally the violin playing of Daniel Pioro, who led the solo line on an ever more ecstatic spiral, full of expressive nudges and nuances. Earlier Pioro had also been the soloist in the London premiere of Tom Coult’s violin concerto Pleasure Garden, which he had introduced with the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester a year ago. Here it seemed a lucidly shaped work, a treasure trove of luscious orchestral colours and effects, that is convincing enough even without the detailed extra-musical explanations that Coult provides for each of the four movements; his music rarely lapses into anything obviously illustrative or anecdotal.
The account of Vaughan Williams’s final symphony – “possibly his greatest masterpiece”, Manze suggested in a brief podium introduction – was fierce, and suitably enigmatic. It’s not a work that reveals its secrets easily, but Manze and the LPO left no doubt of its weight and disturbing power, whether in the confrontational opening movement, with its echoes of the Fourth Symphony, the swirling, anything-but-bucolic scherzo or the compromised consolation of the finale, which brought an extraordinary end to a career-long symphonic journey.