Vaughan Williams: A London Symphony by The London Symphony Orchestra, Richard Hickox

CHAN 9902

Re-released by Chandos this summer we have the London Symphony Orchestra’s world premiere recording of the first surviving version of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s A London Symphony. Normally I would say that issues such as versions of classical works might be interesting, but only in an academic fashion. Much in the same way that, say, Star Wars fans geek out over the Millennium Falcon, but a book about it would be too much for the more casual fan; the issue of what the composer intended to write, what was maybe edited posthumously, what they had to change to play the work on the instruments of the time – all of these ideas excite academic musicians. In most cases these academic discussions don’t then spill over into us general classical music fans feeling compelled to listen to an alternate recording of a well-known work. In the case of Vaughan Williams’s A London Symphony though I would highly recommend this excellent recording by the LSO with Richard Hickox.

As the sticker on the front of the case says, the recording includes 20 minutes of previously unrecorded music. This is sprinkled throughout the symphony (although not in the first movement), as Vaughan Williams edited the work in 1918, 1920 and 1933, leading to a final revised edition being published in the 1930s, which is the usual version we hear today. As the booklet of notes which come with the recording make clear to stress, the composer writing in 1913 was very different to the more experienced Vaughan Williams of the 1930s. His exceptional violin work The Lark Ascending was written in 1914 and the similarities between this and the violin solos of A London Symphony feel obvious. Vaughan Williams’s writing may have been less ‘tight’ in the sense we use this word to describe modern bands today, but that makes it often more playful, sometimes meandering, and overall quite a surprisingly emotive work.

The first movement begins very quietly, evoking the image of mist over the river. Although Vaughan Williams resisted all descriptions of this work as programmatic music, there are some clear moments where he surely couldn’t deny the image is one of London mists, or of Big Ben. The strings here are ethereal and slowly the mist starts to disperse as the tune begins in the lower instruments. Gradually the idea of a melody takes prominence before suddenly we hear the bell-like tones of Big Ben ushering in the woodwind and brass. Their descending scale of a tune felt evil to me and everything becomes more urgent. Eventually this ominous fragment relaxes its hold and the music evolves into the more twee Vaughan Williams of folk melodies complete with piccolo, ‘English’-sounding strings and prominent percussion. I find this type harder to listen to, but luckily there wasn’t much before the evil descending scale returns with demanding trumpets this time.

A subdued section follows which culminates in string solos. It was at this point I first thought of The Lark Ascending as Gordan Nikolitch’s all-to-brief violin solo fitted perfectly into the section. Then the river appeared to return as the rocking and swelling of the strings lulled us back into a sense of security. Finally the evil descending scale appears muted in the background, and the folk-like tune winds its way through the orchestra leading to a resplendent final fanfare.

The Lento opens with a carpet of muted strings – a truly lovely sound from the LSO – atop of which the Cor Anglais and other woodwind give us a haunting melody. Later the strings get their tune with prominent cellos and the tune in their hands becomes epic, strangely minor but with a modal quality. I was impressed at this point by the sound produced by the LSO. It feels very much like all the instruments are part of one whole; there are no rough edges. The viola and clarinet solos lead us into the start of a more playful section, with wonderful interplay between the woodwind interjections. But still, the strings triumph over this and swell a very simple figure into a large tune, with the added interest of triple versus duple time in the counter melody. Around 11 minutes in, the initial melody is reprised with ‘silent’ strings underneath. The movement meanders around becoming ever quieter until I really began to feel like the entire orchestra was under water by the end.

The Scherzo bounces along with gentle timpani and bass beats on the bar and twiddling wind and strings above. The second subject in this movement gives us the woodwind sounding rather like a crass wind band, but fortunately for my tastes this figure develops further round the orchestra. And then we have the gorgeous third subject: complete with gracious harps and a solo violin over the orchestra. I had difficulty with the balance on the violin, as the levels must have been tricky. Luckily later there is a particularly lovely moment with horn and violin and later the basses. The basses keep on with their pedal note into the return of the first subject by the woodwind as the movement winds down.

The fourth movement makes its claim boldly to start, with full brass and strings descending in a stately fashion. This gives way to a more sprightly march with full percussion. Following this we have a more harmonically disturbed section before the furious march returns. But this dissolves into a peaceful section and slowly we are led back to a slower tune with prominent brass which begins to sound slightly ominous. At 11 minutes in though we have a very well-balanced section that reminds me of an organ played by instruments of the orchestra. The bass line is heavy and the other lines are consistently sustained. The tune returns from the beginning of the first movement at around 15 minutes. This seemed to emphasise the journey travelled since the start of the work and also gives a satisfying sense of completion. The melody as it works its way out reaches up and up in an ascending scale but stalls before reaching the top note. All the parts become quieter and the crescendo of the timpani subtly marks the final chord, before leaving the strings to sustain a quiet finishing line.

If you don’t already know this work, it is probably worth mentioning its somewhat bitty nature – as has probably also been implied by my description. Tunes appear and disappear quickly of the period of even four bars, and the lines sometimes stop suddenly and turn on a sixpence to give a dramatic quiet moment. The overwhelming achievement of the LSO therefore with this recording is to give it a sense of coherence and flow. I’m not sure what I think in terms of preferring the 1930s Revised Edition to the 1913 edition, but I feel the 1913 version is important, and more importantly, under the baton of Richard Hickox moving and sensitive – a worthy addition to a collection.

This CD (or vinyl, it comes in both!) also contains The Banks of Green Willow by Vaughan Williams’s contemporary George Butterworth. As the booklet points out, Butterworth tragically had his life cut short in the trenches of the First World War, so he did not live to become better known. This short work sounds very English, in fact it is based on two folk songs, and it proves evocative in the lyrical playing by the LSO.

Reviewer: Katie Lodge

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