BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
January 15 2020
Review: William Ruff
Stephen Johnson’s ear-opening tour of a troubled symphony
If you’ve ever been on a guided tour, you’ll know what makes a good guide. Not just someone who knows his stuff, but who really engages with the audience, who is alive to new ideas even as he speaks, who has something to offer to the new-comer as well as opening the eyes of the person who already knows the territory.
BBC Radio 3’s Stephen Johnson has been a good guide for many years now and his Discovering Music concerts have become an annual feature in the Nottingham Classics series. On Wednesday his subject was Ralph Vaughan Williams’ 6th Symphony and his approach was typically illuminating. He started with the big melody from the opening movement which some people may still remember as the highly evocative signature tune of TV’s Family at War aired back in the early 1970s. Such music, he said (with a twinkle in his eyes) was the sort of thing played in National Trust gift shops.
But the twinkle said it all: wrenching the music out of context gives no idea of just how troubled and turbulent the symphony is, just how surprising and even shocking its ideas are – especially for a composer well into his seventies when it was written in 1948. For Johnson this is war music, full of dangerous energy, suggestive of bombed dance halls and atomic devastation, of musical ideas flung into a centrifuge with one big tune emerging…but too late, as if peering out from a bunker at an age that has gone for ever.
This may sound grim but the music is never less than gripping, especially when played by the BBC Philharmonic and conducted by John Wilson, best-known for his showbiz spectaculars but who also happens to be one of our most eminent interpreters of British music. Together they certainly spoke RVW’s language, the opening being startlingly violent and unstable, the slow movement like a nightmarish foot patrol across no-mans-land, the scherzo twisted and disturbingly unpredictable. And then the final ‘Epilogue’, a last movement like no other, never louder than ‘very quiet’ and suggestive of devastating bleakness.
Bleak, yes. But never less than gripping. To lower the emotional temperature for a few evocative, pastoral minutes John Wilson and the BBC Phil also played Vaughan Williams’ In the Fen Country, a sort of pastel-shaded rhapsody from early in composer’s career, a piece in which the composer was finding the voice which we later hear so distinctively in that heart-wrenching symphony.
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
John Wilson, conductor
Stephen Johnson, presenter