Toward the Unknown Region, Manchester’s celebration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Ralph Vaughan Williams, shared between the BBC Philharmonic and Hallé orchestras, does not confine itself to the nine symphonies. So although the second concert in the series, conducted by Andrew Davis, included two of Vaughan Williams’s greatest orchestral achievements, only one of those was a symphony. That was the Fourth, which was played alongside the ballet score composed immediately before it, the “masque for dancing”, Job.
The brutal power unleashed by the BBC Philharmonic in the Fourth provided more than enough symphonic substance for one concert, however. Davis never attempted to soften any of its raw edges, or play down the grotesqueries, whether in the grinding dissonances of the opening, the violent changes of mood in the scherzo, with its clod-hopping trio, or the militaristic swagger of its finale. Nothing else in Vaughan Williams’s output is quite like it.
Certainly the contrast between the primary-coloured symphony and the refinement and pastel shades of much of Job was a telling one. There are many moments of savagery in the ballet score, as well as brilliant orchestral characterisations, such as the use of a wheedling solo saxophone to personify Job’s comforters. But the music that really defines the work is rapturous and contemplative, and that is epitomised by the epilogue, which Davis lulled into silence with exquisite tact.
Joined by the Hallé Choir, he and the orchestra had begun with the carefully shaped account of the work that gives the series its title, and which here provided a reminder of where Vaughan Williams’ personal musical journey had begun. Walt Whitman’s poetry may not have been the most obvious text for an aspiring British composer in the early 1900s, but the solid, four-square choral setting of it in Toward the Unknown Region is an mistakable legacy of Victorian England; after it would come more Whitman settings in A Sea Symphony, and there the real composer would emerge for the first time.
Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 29 March, and then available on BBC Sounds