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A LONDON SYMPHONY: revelation & a new understanding

Vaughan Williams
A London Symphony (original 1913 version), world premiere recording
Banks of Green Willow
London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Richard Hickox
Chandos CHAN 9902 67:42
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The appearance on CD of the first (1913) version of Vaughan Williams's A London Symphony, a score that for many years we have been told should not be performed, is a wonderful surprise from Chandos - one of those unexpected artistic coups which from time to time makes record collecting such an adventure and a joy. Chandos's well-kept secret, completely justifies those who have been pushing to hear this music. However, it must be said it gives us a tremendous historical document, not in any sense a viable day-to-day alternative to Vaughan Williams' final version from the 1930s. However, the 1920 version, with its longer and more satisfying Epilogue, and other incidental delights, certainly is a version which should be heard from time to time in place of the final version.

The first movement is really not in contention in this review. Hickox gives it a generous drama, the climaxes hugely impressive the detail and solos lovingly taken. But the other movements all have extensive differences from the familiar score, and the long passages of hitherto unknown music in the Scherzo and the Finale come as quite a revelation, memorable in their invention and sound: it was architecture not invention that dictated revision and deletion.

Just to remind music lovers who have not been following the London Symphony saga, of the history. The work was first performed on 27 March 1914, and again, in Harrogate, on 12 August, a week after the outbreak of war. The score was submitted to the first year of the Carnegie Trust Publication Competition in 1917 and accepted, but Vaughan Williams postponed publication, on the grounds that he needed to revise the score, and the printed full score when it finally appeared in 1920 had been considerably cut, losing most of the music restored here, although it still retained several passages not in the version widely performed today, for which several more cuts were made in the 1930s.

When Dan Godfrey recorded it in 1925 he used the 1920 score, then the current version; Sir Henry Wood in 1936 used the final version (now on Dutton CDAX 8004). Let us also place these alongside the Goossens 1941 recording of the 1920 version (which is currently available on Biddulph WHL 016). The last time the 1920 version was played, was by Leslie Head at St John's Smith Square for a RVW Centenary concert in 1972.

We need to give this thing some scale: first, some timings to give us an idea of how the music recorded by Hickox and the LSO differs from what went before. Fortunately we have a baseline: Herbert Thompson, for fifty years critic of the Yorkshire Post, habitually timed every performance he attended, and his diary (now in Leeds University Library) notes the August 1914 performance - the second - as follows: 12'/ 15'/ 9'/ 15'. Hickox is slower in every movement, and he certainly takes a broad view, a view which underlines the atmosphere of the work. Here are comparative running times including two modern performances of the final version, Boult's 1952 recording and Previn's second:

Mvt 1914 Goossens Head Boult Previn Hickox

(1952) (2nd rec)
I 12' 11'06" 14'10" 13'25" 15'23" 14'56"
II 15' 9'22" 12'05" 11'02" 12'07" 16'10"
III 9' 5'09"* 8'07" 7'04" 7'35" 11'00"
IV 15' 13'15" 14'10" 12'29" 13'38" 18'45"

*no repeat

The first version is now revealed as a fascinating, sprawling, musical canvas, yet with the first movement and extended passages of each later movement already in their final form. Hearing it like this in no way detracts from the better-shaped London Symphony we know and love. Indeed, while we may have applauded Vaughan Williams' intention in tautening his all-encompassing structure, we are now fully able to appreciate just what an achievement was his final version, cut literally from over-flowing invention. Like Sibelius's Fifth Symphony the seeming inevitability and 'rightness' of the final version was actually the outcome of an enormous crisis of imagination informed by endless tinkering after early performances.

But the first version is valuable on its own account, and hearing what Vaughan Williams first wrote now makes available to us much music from its composer's early peak that comes completely new to us, written when RVW was vitally on fire creatively, and reason for all interested in Vaughan Williams and British music of the twentieth century to rush out and get this disc.

There are extended passages of unknown music in all three later movements, and one is so used to the final version that it takes several hearings to get over the shock of familiar music suddenly switching into sections that were later cut or drastically changed, and then back again. And just how cherishable on its own account is the material he cut. Its like being taken back to some pre-bombing London and finding long-forgotten squares and alleys and evocative vistas that we thought had gone for ever.

For example the slow movement, opens with eight familiar bars with the cor anglais tune, but on the reprise is already in a different orchestral setting to the familiar version and then over several pages largely familiar thematic material is the basis of an unfamiliar tapestry - quite fascinating as the final version comes into focus and recedes.

Perhaps the most interesting new passage comes in the third movement, the Scherzo - or 'Nocturne' as RVW parenthetically referred to it. Here, having sailed through 46 familiar pages, complete with exposition repeat (track 4), the second half of the movement is substantially changed, starting at 5:45 with an extended passage of unfamiliar music and textures. Indeed this section is particularly interesting as we hear Vaughan Williams exploring the latest techniques of his day, valuable for its sound and harmonic language and what seems like passing allusions to works of the time by other composers soon to be written, including Holst (The Planets) and Bax. It must be the music that Vaughan Williams referred to as 'horrible modern music - awful stuff', in fact visionary and pioneering would have been a better description, and its good that we are now at last able to absorb it into our living musical experience.

It was this passage, with its passing resonances of 'Neptune' that made me wonder about Vaughan Williams's score and his friend Holst's suite The Planets, then yet to be written. Having listened to this CD many times over two days, I am struck by the parallel with The Planets - Vaughan Williams's Epilogue being in fact his 'Neptune', and one wonders whether Holst's score might well have been, in some non-specific way, his response to his friend's success.

In the finale we find several re-written passages. For example that 'bad hymn tune' as Vaughan Williams referred to it, which is completely cut in the later versions. In his notes Stephen Connock draws our attention to it as 'remarkable and memorable . . . of such tender sadness' and it is certainly one of the most cherishable of our discoveries in this enterprise, and almost completely self-contained.

The original Epilogue is perhaps most notable for its length (here track 5 from 11:45; it takes 7 minutes), and it underlines that here in the final version Vaughan Williams surely overdid the cutting - the music needs the epic scale of a longer vision. For my money this is best found in the second version, but his first vision of the Epilogue is very different, as familiar material comes and goes like a picture never coming into the expected focus. Even more than the final version it seems to concentrate on the River, with that rising motif very much in evidence and the continuum of the sustained strings. This reinforces those programmatic allusions found in a celebrated passage in Wells' Tono Bungay, a parallel emphasised by the grandeur of its original conception. This is a vivid vision of the infinite with almost the power of a separate work. Am I alone in finding a lingering feeling of menace or apprehension? Without the score of the first version I find it difficult to say why, yet for a work first performed in 1914, the shiver it sends down the spine is almost palpable.

What a remarkable initiative on Richard Hickox's part! An enriching experience, but in no sense a substitute for the familiar London Symphony. What we have here is a musical experience in its own right, giving us a new perspective on the task facing a young composer in 1913, and some lovely orchestral music we have not heard before.

The LSO respond warmly, with fine playing caught by classic Chandos sound in the resonant acoustic of All Saints' Church, Tooting. Authoritative notes by Stephen Connock and Michael Kennedy. The Butterworth is an appropriate and touching coupling. In my view Chandos's only mistake is not tracking the Epilogue separately which makes finding it a minor irritation. All in all another indispensable issue from Chandos.

Lewis Foreman


Musically, I found this disc a revelation. The London Symphony has long been a favourite of mine, but I must confess that this was largely on the appeal of the second movement.

In this the original version, containing a substantial additional content, the appeal and impact of not only the second movement but the entire work is greatly enhanced. It is therefore particularly pleasing that the Chandos recording is so good; to my ears well up to the standards of their very best. There is a wide , deep soundstage, with airiness, clarity, and sonority, and a richness which enhances but never obscures.

Despite already having the highly satisfactory Vernon Handley performance in my collection,

I have no hesitation in recommending this unique version as a very worthwhile addition which could change your entire perception of the work.

David Dyer

Equipment Used:
Chord CPA 3200 / SPM 1200 / DSC1100
Proceed transport
B & W Nautilus 802

See also reviews by Simon Foster and Paul Conway

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