Composers: Vaughan Williams
Compositions: Sinfonia Antartica, Symphony No 9
Performers: Royal Liverpool PO/Andrew Manze
Catalogue Number: ONYX ONYX4190

Of all Ralph Vaughan Williams’ symphonies, Nos 7 and 9 are possibly the most misunderstood and least often programmed. Sinfonia Antartica (No 7) is a symphonic elaboration of themes from the score the composer provided for the film Scott of the Antarctic, but it is more than a hastily collated suite. In five movements, it has a genuinely symphonic structure with a central slow movement, a scherzo, and a mysterious epilogue. The enigmatic Ninth, lasting over 40 minutes, is a vast canvas that does not reveal its secrets easily. In many ways, especially in terms of colour, it shows the 86-year-old composer breaking new ground.

This is the final release in Andrew Manze’s survey of the nine symphonies with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, and is among their finest. Manze’s concern to textural detail pays off and the granite-like climaxes of No 7’s central movement are as powerful as any I’ve heard. In both works, tempos are beautifully judged.

Recorded competition is keen. Manze includes spoken introductions to the Antartica’s movements (read by Timothy West). I feel these interrupt the musical flow, leading me to prefer the recent Chandos recording under Andrew Davis, which dispenses with narration. The sweep of Symphony No 9 is better conveyed by Bernard Haitink, through his long experience as a Bruckner and Mahler conductor. Still, Manze’s vision remains commandingly individual.