Album review: A noteworthy Vaughan Williams disc from Pappano and the LSO

Chief Conductor Designate Sir Antonio Pappano conducting the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican. © Liam Hennebry

The history of the London Symphony Orchestra recording the symphonies of Ralph Vaughan Williams goes way back. In February 1949, Sir Adrian Boult led the orchestra in sessions for HMV with the recently premiered Symphony No. 6 in E minor (1944-47) on the programme.

Since those Abbey Road sessions, the LSO has recorded the Vaughan Williams symphonies relatively actively, including complete cycles with Sir André Previn and Bryden Thomson, as well as a sadly unfinished one with Richard Hickox. Teaming up with their Chief Conductor Designate Sir Antonio Pappano, the orchestra has released its latest addition to the RVW catalogue on its home label LSO Live, featuring the composer’s two most vehement symphonic endeavours.

With its third movement revised in 1950, Vaughan Williams’s Sixth Symphony is a staggering postwar commentary. Cast in four interconnected movements, the thirty-minute symphony is a compelling musical statement, conceived as a stark contrast to his wartime masterpiece, Symphony No. 5 in D major (1938-43), heard at last year’s Proms in a life-affirming LSO performance under Music Director Sir Simon Rattle.

Although the repercussions of WWII are often entangled in the analysis of Vaughan Williams’s Sixth (as is the case with Fifth, too), the composer never explicitly labelled the symphony as a war symphony. In fact, the musical dramaturgy of the Sixth is far more multi-faceted, as demonstrated by, in particular, the enigmatic closing movement.

To paraphrase Jean Sibelius, whose example RVW found ”worthy of all imitation”, a symphony is a manifestation of a composer’s personal credo at a certain point of life. This is certainly true with Vaughan Williams as well. As several layers of meaning are juxtaposed with each symphony, the scores cannot be reduced into mere products of their immediate context, but something far more complex, perhaps best described in purely musical terms.

The Sixth symphony bursts into action headlong, as the full orchestra plunges into agitated dialogue from bar one. Following the vehement, almost chaotic opening, the music builds up to a speedy procession, as the orchestral fabric stabilises. Yet, Vaughan Williams does not indulge his listeners with many serene passages. Instead, on the sounding surface, many shadows are cast, reminding the extreme tensions of the movement’s opening.

Following a fleeting moment of sonic sunlight, the movement closes with a coda, bridging into the ominous second movement. Under the slowly enfolding, dark-hued textures, a distant rumour is echoed throughout the spellbinding orchestral development, until the music gets stuck on a repeated three-note figure on brass and timpani, zenithing into a crushing climax. A short lamentation ensues, before the orchestra embarks on another stormy journey; the scherzo.

A fugal opening launches the music into turbulent currents, recalling the symphony’s anguished opening. Out of the fabric, solo tenor saxophone emerges, way outside of its usual, jazz-tinged sonorities. Altering between tutti and solo passages, the music permutes into a brief trio section, followed by increasingly complex fugal writing; a tour-de-force for full orchestra, abruptly silenced by the Epilogue, the symphony’s unexpected and unprecedented closing movement.

Marked moderato, the fourth movement adopts another fugal pattern; unfolding very slowly in pianissimo textures senza crescendo. Drifting senza espressivo within vague dreamscape clad in musical apparitions, the symphony enters into a realm beyond any verbal descriptions. Dissolving into thin air, the symphony crosses the threshold between this world and the one to come; an agnostic’s Nunc dimittis, as the composer himself put it.

Recorded in conjunction with the LSO’s final pre-lockdown concert at the Barbican Hall in March 2020, Pappano and the orchestra give the Sixth symphony an extraordinary outing on the new LSO Live album. While perhaps not quite matching the immaculate architectural design crafted by Hickox on the astounding 2003 Chandos recording, Pappano is a master of detail, delivering a tremendously lively musical drama, superbly realised by the fabulous LSO players.

Aptly strident and ominous, Vaughan Williams’s symphonic scheme unfolds in gripping narrative, awash with orchestral colour, enhanced by ever-sensitive phrasing. Brewing in the undercurrents of the second movement, musical tensions are conceived with an extraordinary sense of dramaturgy. Heralding the prolonged silence brought upon us by the pandemic, the Epilogue is one of the most moving ever committed to disc, characterised by marvellously focused ensemble performance from the LSO musicians.

Pappano and the LSO onstage at the Barbican. © Liam Hennebry

The new disc opens with Symphony No. 4 in F minor (1931-34), another ferocious account by Vaughan Williams. Similarly to the Sixth, the Fourth is often seen as an aftermath to the Great War; a stormy orchestral essay bookended by two pastoral symphonies. As with the Sixth, Vaughan Williams was adamant that his Fourth was conceived in purely musical terms, without any external (or internal) impetus.

Masterfully conceived, the Fourth Symphony may not be an instant charmer, but the more one is involved with it, the more staggering it appears. Coming after three titled and evocative symphonies, the Fourth adopts more severe tone, deliberately abstract, yet inherently dramatic. profoundly admired by fellow composers such as Sir Arnold Bax, Arthur Benjamin and Sir William Walton, the Fourth has appealed to several conductors not otherwise closely associated with the RVW symphonies, including Leonard Bernstein, who recorded it for Columbia in 1965.

Cast in four movements, with two allegros framing an andante moderato and a scherzo, marked allegro molto, Vaughan Williams’s Fourth adopts a solid symphonic scheme. However, within each movement, the composer presents his listeners (and performers) with riveting musical ideas, clad in terrific orchestral raiments.

The whole orchestra is engaged in the symphony’s fiery opening, followed by a gripping symphonic development. Halfway through the movement, the music plunges into sudden pianissimo textures, in preparation for a stirring build-up and the brief return of the opening music. After some vehemence, reflective stillness prevails, and the movement closes in tranquil.

A sardonic herald from muted brass sets the slow movement in motion, with string textures building on a pizzicato bass line. Winds join, woven into the fabric, paving the way for the brass and timpani, resulting in elaborate counterpoint. RVW closes his splendid musical arch with an exquisite flute solo, soaring above lontano brass chords.

A timpani stroke launces the scherzo, a poignant dancescape with spiky musical lines leading to a fugato climax, followed by scherzo da capo and a coda leading into the fourth movement. Titled Finale con epilogo fugato, the last movement opens with a brass herald, as the orchestra sets forth into a fully-fledged allegro. Reflections from the previous movements reappear, as the finale works its way towards the astounding contrapuntal textures of the closing fugato for full ensemble. With the symphonic circle completed, the music ends with a bang.

With Pappano, the LSO endorses RVW’s writing appealingly as-is, without resorting to dramatic excess. While their take may not be as earth-shaking as their late sixties colleagues with Previn, this is a performance to cherish for its myriad fine detail, including the riveting solo flute line in the second movement, as well as the contrapuntal brass passages in the epilogue.

In addition, Pappano’s grasp on the symphony’s architecture is impeccable, resulting in a thoroughly satisfying vision, admirably realised by the LSO.

With these two compelling performances in mind, one hopes that the orchestra and Pappano will continue to explore the Vaughan Williams repertoire over the years to come. Given that almost two decades have elapsed since the Hickox cycle, further noteworthy RVW recordings from the LSO would be wholeheartedly embraced.

London Symphony Orchestra

Sir Antonio Pappano, conductor

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 4 in F minor (1831-34)

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 6 in E minor (1944-47/1950)

Recorded at the Barbican Hall, London, in December 2019 (Symphony No. 4) and March 2020 (Symphony No. 6)

LSO Live LSO0867 (2021), 1 SACD

© Jari Kallio

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