This is the third of your Vaughan Williams Symphony recordings. What draws you to his music?

As a boy I was attracted by the music’s beauty: the Serenade to Music, the Mass in G Minor, the Five Mystical Songs. The opening of the Fifth Symphony captivated me whereas the Sixth Symphony scared me off. As I get older, I realise that it is Vaughan Williams’s sincerity I cherish. His roots lie deep in the English musical subsoil (old church hymns and folk music) and his music emerged from those roots via his heart and instinct. So now I find I am in sympathy even with his most rugged, stern pieces.

Many conductors – most English, but some ‘internationals’ – have embraced these symphonies. Do you come at these works with any of your predecessor’s interpretations in mind and is there anything specific you hope to bring out of them that might perhaps not be so apparent in previous recordings?

The English do not hold a Vaughan Williams monopoly. I am always curious to hear other musicians’ interpretations in general but, when it comes to preparing a score and working with an orchestra, what someone else did is nowhere near my conscious mind. (Subconscious is another matter.) I learned what questions to ask myself when in the world of historically informed performance and those questions remain valid starting points, from technical issues, such as edition, style, sound, structure, balance, phrasing, to more speculative considerations: the composer’s intentions and how to translate them into a meaningful performance today. So, I am not actively accepting or rejecting another’s interpretation but merely trying to do what I believe is right.

Andrew Manze, Vaughan WilliamsAndrew Manze. Photo © Chris Christodoulou

With Vaughan Williams it’s always interesting to see links or common themes between works – Symphonies Nos 3 and 4 seem to be connected by the theme of ‘war’ –  but apart from their chronological links, do you see any common threads in the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies?

In the case of the Fifth and Sixth symphonies, I would draw a comparison with Brahms’ first two symphonies, so different in atmosphere and effect and yet sharing common roots. (see Reinhold Brinkmann’s Late Idyll). Similar to that of Brahms, I feel that you can view most of Vaughan Williams’s output as forming a huge set of variations on being Vaughan Williams. So, in that sense I detect strong internal links, technical, stylistic etc, even between two apparently dissimilar pieces like the Fifth and Sixth. There is even a phrase in the slow movement of the Fifth which will be the opening phrase of the Sixth. Vaughan Williams’s oeuvre is peppered with such cross-references and self-fertilisations.

Symphony No 5 contains reworked themes from The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains (or ultimately The Pilgrim’s Progress). To what extent do you see the work as containing a message associated with that work?

In 1979 the Fifth Symphony transmitted its ‘message’ to a 14-year-old boy (me) who knew nothing of its association with Pilgrims or Delectable Mountains (although I had already read Pilgrim’s Progress, since I was brought up in Bedford, Bunyan’s ‘City of Destruction’!), Now I know a lot more about Vaughan Williams and I know most of his music, much of it intimately, but the message of the Fifth is unchanged, like runes carved on a monolith. I can’t tell you what the runes say but I like trying to read them.

Given that it was written during WWII, how strongly do you feel it to be a response to the conflict?

I will never forget one evening a few years ago when I was giving a pre-concert talk about the Fifth in Glasgow. A lady called Mary Lawson put her hand up and said that she was at the premiere in 1943. She spoke movingly of how the music expressed hope at that dark time in the war. Nobody can say whether that was Vaughan Williams’s purpose but it is surely an example of his innate empathy.

Does that affect your own interpretation, or do you feel it as ‘pure music’ (whatever that might mean!)

When rehearsing the Fifth, I might quote Mary Lawson or refer to key moments in The Pilgrim’s Progress, but that is because shared images help unify a large group of musicians quickly. When actually performing the piece, rather than holding external images in mind, my ‘eye’ is on the emotional effect of the music.

The Fifth was dedicated (without permission) to Sibelius. Are there Sibelian things in the music?

My guess (and that’s all it is) is that VW felt an affinity with Sibelius because they were both nourished by and stayed faithful to their roots. Culturally England (Bunyan, Blake, Shakespeare, Milton) and Finland (Kalevala, Kanteletar and Sibelius’ milieu, Eero Järnefält, Aho, Gallen-Kallela etc.) are worlds apart but, if one digs down deep enough, might it not be the case that apparently disparate musical roots converge?

What are the key challenges for conductor and orchestra in the Fifth Symphony?

In 2012 the BBC Scottish Symphony and I performed Vaughan Williams’s Fourth, Fifth and Sixth in the Proms – for the first (and probably last) time ever. That evening, the players will tell you, the Fifth felt like a kind interlude between two ferociously difficult pieces. In fact, the Scherzo of the Fifth is far from easy, with its myriads of notes, Ravelian lightness and earthy mischief.

The Sixth Symphony has always been considered shocking. Do you find it to be so?

The Sixth perhaps undermines some peoples view of Vaughan Williams but I prefer the word sobering to shocking. Players often draw comparisons with Shostakovich, especially when playing the second movement, but Vaughan Williams would not have been very familiar with Shostakovich’s music by then. I presume he heard the Leningrad Symphony in 1942 either live or on the radio but I’m not aware that he ever said anything about it.

Vaughan Williams famously said of the Sixth, “It never seems to occur to people that a man might just want to write a piece of music”. Do you think he was being disingenuous and do you sense a message behind the work?

Vaughan Williams rather brought this on himself. After three titled symphonies, Sea, London and Pastoral, it was perhaps inevitable that people looked for a program to the Sixth. I can, however, believe Vaughan Williams, “that a man might just want to write a piece of music”, and I can understand how someone who feels the world as he does is unintentionally affected by events. But we must also recognise that other people’s urge to define and describe was part of their search for understanding that period of upheaval in the mid-1940s, not Vaughan Williams’s. More than 70 years later, the world is different but the Symphony still has a powerful message.

The Sixth is often seen as containing many innovations (for Vaughan Williams) and to be the first work in his ‘late style’. Do you find that to be the case or are these perhaps already prefigured in the Fifth?

I don’t hear a change with the Sixth. It can be heard as another step on the path opened up by the Fourth Symphony, the Piano Concerto and Job. Flos Campi is particularly interesting for its juxtaposition of elements of both the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, and yet it was composed 20 years earlier.

Again, what are the greatest challenges for conductor and orchestra approaching the Sixth Symphony?

There is the physical challenge of playing it – the fast music is difficult and the slow music exhausting because the intensity never relaxes, especially in the last movement. For the conductor the risk is that everything is either very loud or very soft. One must judge the large-scale contours of any symphony and Vaughan Williams Six certainly needs a bird’s-eye view.

What’s next in the cycle for you?

In June, we (the RLPO and the ladies of its choir, plus soprano Rowan Pierce) will perform and record No 7, Sinfonia Antartica, and then in September this year No 9, and then…. Oh no! the recordings will be finished. But I intend to keep performing these special symphonies wherever and whenever people want to hear them. I have been lucky to experience Vaughan Williams’s music with many fine orchestras but this journey with the Royal Liverpool Phil has been very special.

Andrew Manze’s recording of Vaughan Williams’ Fifth and Sixth Symphonies is out now on Onyx. Read our review here.