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LSO IN NEW YORK (III): Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 6 in E minor (1944-47, rev. 1950), Walton: Symphony No. 1 (1931-35), London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis, Conductor, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, 2.10.2005 (BH)



Of the three outstanding concerts in this latest stand by Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra, the scorching Verdi Requiem and the massively detailed all-Sibelius evenings may have to concede a bit to this expertly transmitted, sublimely fascinating Vaughan Williams Sixth Symphony.  Similar to Sibelius, performances of Vaughan Williams symphonies are rare, perhaps because some conductors lack the insight to make sense of his asymmetrical structures, and an empathy with the composer’s tonality that seems to flirt elsewhere – not to mention some imaginative, unorthodox use of instruments.  Apparently the composer’s use of the tenor saxophone is intended to represent a jazz club bombed in the London Blitz, and the instrument’s appearance is painfully poignant.

In my view, the LSO really pulled out all the stops on this beautiful New York Sunday afternoon, and the previous two concerts weren’t exactly dull.  The cataclysmic first movement featured a luminous turn by the orchestra’s cor anglais – I hope by praising principal Christine Pendrill I’m citing the right person.  (The three concerts appeared to give star turns to different personnel in principal roles, which is admirable.)  The Scherzo featured that saxophone, memorably played by Shaun Thompson, in an unusual duo with the snare drum, one of many ear-tweaking combinations the composer uses.

The final enigmatic Epilogue will go down as one of the highlights of the day.  As a program note, the composer offered a quotation from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.  This rather incisively describes the movement’s dreamy character, with a massive musical fabric slowly dissolving into a haze of muted strings and brass that lingers over an enormous span, all the way through until the end.  Sir Colin’s brilliance in maintaining this tension, coupled with the LSO players’ control, cannot be overstated, and one only needed to hear – or rather, not hear – the audience, to be convinced: they were totally enraptured and noiseless.  I doubt I will hear this piece again for years (in live performance, that is), which is a shame given its inspiration, and when it reappears it will probably not be inflamed with playing of this caliber.

The exuberant Walton First Symphony has many admirers, and it’s easy to see why.  If to my ears it seemed a trifle square compared to the Vaughan Williams, this is no one’s fault (including Walton’s, whose jazzy, electric oratorio, Belshazzar’s Feast, contains its share of slightly square moments, too).  Perhaps after the intense, haunting Vaughan Williams, Sir Colin wanted his final calling card to be more buoyant.  I especially liked the second movement, Presto, con malizia (“with malice”), referring to the tricky meter: reckless pairs of three-four, with an occasional beat lopped off to create five-four instead.  The gorgeous Andante con malinconia showed the sensuous side of the LSO, and if there were any doubt remaining about the prowess of the orchestra’s jaw-dropping brass section, Walton’s final Maestoso: Brioso ed ardentemente offered them plenty of room to persuade disbelievers. 



Bruce Hodges


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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)