WITH Britten’s Cello Symphony and Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No 6 as the main features, this programme under Andrew Manze’s direction was never likely to be a bundle of laughs.
Both are harrowing works, driven by astringent expression, challenging on the ear, but hugely satisfying when performed successfully.
But Manze had a cunning plan – sweeteners in the form of his own orchestrations of Purcell to take the sting out of a potentially bitter pill. They did, to some extent, though his dissected wind and brass versions of the Fantasia on one note, and the Pavan in B flat were odd confections compared to the straightforward string amplifications of the well-known Chacony and gorgeous In nomine.
The last of these was the most effectively placed, its comforting mood lulling us into a false sense of security before the instant invasive harshness of the Vaughan Williams exploded into life like a bolt from the blue.
For this is Williams in antagonistic mode, vicious and dissonant, furious and flamboyant, though Manze’s initially bombastic opening recognised too, the softer modal inflections that tame the beast and, in the Epilogue, cast a hushed, troubled serenity reminiscent of Shostakovich; equally, in this case, harking back to the calm of the Purcell scene-setter.
Manze and the SSO were not so hot performing the Britten, but they did enjoy the benefit of cellist Alban Gerhardt, whose solo performance was not only gripping, but seductively dark and distinctive.