wed 19/06/2024

Rangwanasha, Williams, Hallé Orchestra and Choirs, Elder, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - epic Vaughan Williams | reviews, news & interviews

Rangwanasha, Williams, Hallé Orchestra and Choirs, Elder, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - epic Vaughan Williams

Rangwanasha, Williams, Hallé Orchestra and Choirs, Elder, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - epic Vaughan Williams

Two extraordinary symphonies take to the high seas with noble captain and crew

Standing ovation: Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra and Choirs at the close of the VW 150 concertTom Stephens

In the first and sixth symphonies of Vaughan Williams, Sir Mark Elder had two of the most ambitious and rewarding of the whole canon to present in Saturday’s VW 150 concert, which consisted of those two works alone.

A Sea Symphony in particular (the first) is a big work in every sense and worthy of his expertise in marshalling and inspiring large forces: performed second, it brought the evening to a marvellous end and received an enthusiastic standing ovation of the kind more usual at pop concerts than from classical fans.

The Sixth Symphony, however, is music of remarkable freshness, in many ways marking its own new beginning when first unleashed in 1948, the composer’s 76th year. Its dramatic opening has been used to accompany films of wartime heroism and destruction, and it’s tempting to see the whole piece as a reaction to the experience of the 1939-45 world war – particularly in the light of of its icy, horror-struck finale, music without any warmth or, it seems, hope: the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, perhaps?

Its four-movement shape is traditional, however, and there is drama in that, as ever was. Sir Mark’s interpretation punched its way through the opening allegro, both epic in conception and insistent in pulse, with stabbing interjections, and the sound of the saxophone (a notable solo voice in this symphony) contributing a sense of unease as much as light relief. The rum-ti-tum rhythm that comes with it continues, disturbingly, even as the consoling second theme emerges, and that, in its fullest form, was played both eloquently and sensitively by the Hallé strings, with Paul Barritt in the leader’s chair.

The slow movement, ominously featuring a rat-a-tat motif, is real Age of Anxiety stuff, and Elder brought the last of its high-points to a terrifying intensity. The Scherzo uses the relentless tread of strict tempo dance music to evoke something horrible, too, and there was fury in its opening helter-skelter.

Then there was that cold finale, or “Epilogue”, as labelled: post-traumatic shock in music maybe, but here with a tension of its own that was firmly sustained by Elder against the odds – which unfortunately seemed to include coughing fits from several places in the auditorium. That reaction can sometimes show that something has got through, however, as if quietness itself proves too disturbing to listen to.

Soprano Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha and Roderick Williams acknowledge applause with Sir Mark Elder. Picture by Tom StephensThere was no such problem with the Sea Symphony. The Hallé Choir and Hallé Youth Choir were in splendid voice, and the pair of soloists – Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha, soprano, and Roderick Williams, baritone (pictured right with Elder) – were outstanding: she for the pure, strong, beautiful timbre of her voice and her sense of the emotions in the music’s setting of Walt Whitman’s poetry; he for his familiar alert and lively characterization and warmth of tone. 

This was a composition conceived for one of the great northern English music festivals (Leeds) at a time when massed choral forces were their pride and new music their métier: in many ways it’s a vast choral cantata in that great tradition, and its language is both epic and homely. Elder, who has performed and recorded all the Vaughan Williams symphonies with the Hallé in the past, was able to draw remarkable effects from his choral singers again on this occasion, especially by using the Youth Choir as the semi-chorus, their fresh and gentle tone colour providing a telling contrast to the full body. The crescendos of the unaccompanied full chorus in the finale were a thrill in their own right, and the orchestral contribution had its moments of real glory, such as the atmospheric opening and lovely postlude to the second movement.

The full impact of voices and orchestra, with notable backing from Darius Battiwalla on the Bridgewater Hall organ, was repeatedly felt, with volleys of tone in the final movement giving place to a haunting last paragraph of mezzo voce from the whole platform – and then an extraordinary morendo from the orchestra as the ship of Whitman’s soul sailed into the far distance.

Having said all that, perhaps the most memorable feature of the performance was the opportunity to hear Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha, on her Hallé debut, and appreciate her artistry. For vocal richness and clarity and a kind of holy ecstasy as the work moved to its climax, she is surely in a class of her own. 


I am presently listening to the Sea Symphony, from the Radio 3 website. Perhaps it's just me, but Roderick Williams sounds under-projected, while Rangwanasha's voice rings out strongly.

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