To be honest I have become adrift from Andrew Manze’s Vaughan Williams cycle, and this coupling of Symphonies 5 and 6 is far from new, but it is a good time to assess his view of both works given the imminent arrival of two more accounts of the Fifth – from Michael Collins and the Philharmonia for BIS (with Finzi’s Clarinet Concerto) and from Martyn Brabbins and the BBCSO, the latter continuing their Hyperion series, and I’m assuming Brabbins’s Fifth will also come with the Sixth.
On their own terms, Manze’s 5 and 6 are very distinguished and personal, ones to shortlist and be spoken of in the same breath as Boult, Gibson (No.5), Handley, Previn, Slatkin, and others. Manze’s Fifth is heavenly, a first movement that from the off is stamped ‘special’, glowing with compassion, painted in dawn-like colours, music of solace for war-torn times, first heard in 1943 and dedicated “without permission” to Sibelius, that shares material with VW’s then-unfinished opera The Pilgrim’s Progress. Manze’s eloquent approach and the Liverpool Phil’s sensitive response pay many dividends, add to which the agility needed for the lightly-sprung Scherzo in which scurrying and finesse are in tandem. With the soulful ‘Romanze’ tenderly and broadly addressed, creating an inner sanctum, and the Passacaglia Finale, formal in itself yet charting to rainbow radiance, this is a performance at-one with the music’s humanity.
If Manze is expansive in the Fifth, then he lets rip, foot hard on the accelerator, in the very different Sixth (1948), first heard under Boult – a searing, obstinate, sleazy, otherworldly masterpiece. Manze drives the first movement enough to underline that this is music of turmoil and gawky rhythms, creating a cauldron of conflagration, although the chaste handling of the emerging ‘big’ tune offers hope beyond the horizon, before its unrelenting successor takes over and that in turn is succeeded by the malevolent Scherzo, here manically fast. Good as all this is, it’s the slow Finale, pianissimo throughout, ethereal yet expressive, which really captures the senses. It might be heard as describing a nuclear wasteland – although the composer denied any such association – for the wisps of sound are chillingly presented by Manze and the RLPO.
In the control room, such musical inspiration is fully complemented by producer Andrew Keener and engineer Phil Rowlands. In addition, Onyx 4184 has a booklet note by Lewis Foreman.