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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
An Introduction to Ralph Vaughan Williams
Overture to The Wasps from the 'Aristophanic Suite' (1909) * [10:16]
Fantasia on 'Greensleeves' - arranged by Ralph Greaves (d. 1966) (1934) † [4:34]
The Lark Ascending - Romance for Violin and Orchestra (1921) ‡ [15:36]
A London Symphony (Symphony No. 2) (1913) § [47:41]
Michael Davis (violin)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley *
London Symphony Orchestra/Bryden Thomson †‡§
rec. dates and venues not supplied but made 1980s and 1990s

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Chandos are to be congratulated for giving complete works in their new Introduction series. This makes a refresh change from the ubiquitous ‘favourite bits’ CDs, typified by the latest Naxos "Very best of … " double sets. An arrival means less without the full journey which precedes it. Ironically, the Chandos booklet opens with an introduction by John Browning, a Classic ‘chop, fillet and market’ FM presenter!

Turn to and the blurb for this CD "an introduction to Ralph Vaughan Williams" mentions Vernon Handley: "… these extraordinarily satisfying performances will almost certainly make you a convert to - Vaughan Williams’ music - and a loyal new follower of this distinguished conductor." Handley conducts only the opening Overture to the play ‘The Wasps’, in a performance distinguished by a significant slowing of pulse for the glowing string theme in the middle section. Whatever this theme signifies in Aristotle’s play, I cannot shake the mental picture of movie cameras panning across wide open north western prairies with settlers’ caravans and buffalo. The performance is decent enough, but Handley’s wasps could buzz more angrily, as the Queens Hall Orchestra strings did for Henry Wood in 1936 (Dutton).

The remaining 68 minutes of the CD are conducted by the late Bryden Thomson, an underrated conductor. Try Thomson’s Martinů and Nielsen cycles, Bax 5 and superlative Britten song cycles CD with Felicity Lott and Anthony Rolfe Johnson (Chandos). The Vaughan Williams symphony cycle from which this London Symphony is drawn comes from Thomson’s Chandos cycle recorded in the late-1980s and early 1990s. Thomson’s set still costs over £50, compared with the superbudget Haitink (EMI) and Handley (Classics for Pleasure) digital sets, and must also compete with Chandos’s second cycle with Hickox, so this superbudget reissue is welcome.

Thomson’s mighty London risks creating a following. This is a magnificent performance which impresses more with each hearing. Tempi may be fractionally too weighty in the Allegro risoluto and Wood certainly better captured the dance and fun, the smile of a vital city. However Thomson’s Lento is beautifully drawn with floating strings and impressive legato brass phrasing. The music breathes with ebb and flow. Thomson’s even grip in the crescendo is expertly controlled, timps and brass rolling deep waves of sound, lifting the centre of gravity as the vision rises above ‘Bloomsbury Square on a November Afternoon’. Did Thomson ever conduct Parsifal? Boult (EMI), Barbirolli (EMI 1957) and Wood are by comparison underwhelming.

The dynamic 1980s Chandos engineering opens spectacularly here with a wide, bass-rich airiness that eluded their recording of the 1912 version with Hickox and the London Symphony twenty years later. It’s a relief to hear the LSO in this full church acoustic after listening to their slightly boxy concrete bunker Barbican recordings for LSO Live.

Thomson’s Scherzo is controversial. Hickox’s swifter tempi certainly flow more naturally. Yet Thomson’s grading and control of instrumental colour impress, with revealed details imparting their own energy. A dark glittering undercurrent mirrors the Giulini/Vienna Philharmonic’s handling of the second movement of their Bruckner 9. Here is London’s underbelly.

Following the magnificent apex to the second movement, Thomson’s mastery of the Andante con moto - Allegro – Epilogue is almost no surprise. His opening chords cry out with dramatic rubati and are also distinguished by the dark layering of the LSO sonority: horns, trombones, strings all transparent and rich. I was then taken aback by the glorious LSO brass at 3:04, singing out more powerfully than expected. Thomson’s resulting march to the culmination is serious, the clear trajectory powerful and determined. The thunderous fff timpani and bass drum which underpin the crescendo would be louder in performance but still spreads across the Chandos soundscape spectacularly enough.

The Epilogue begins swiftly, especially the oscillating woodwind at 9:04. Surely the double basses’ melody which underneath this is related to Holst’s Venus, Bringer of Peace? However Thomson appropriately settles the pulse leading to the mystery of the final bars. Here I thought of James Lovelock’s prophetic book The Revenge of Gaia. Vaughan Williams’ watery vision of London’s end is much closer than we expect as humankind responds to the threat of catastrophic climate change by putting the carbon energy pedal to the metal.

Fantasia on 'Greensleeves' and Lark Ascending are too chocolate box for me. An introduction to Vaughan Williams at the shallow end of the pool. After these the loud discord which kick-starts the London’s Allegro risoluto is a welcome relief. Yet Thomson’s Lark is notable for blessedly unsentimental tempi and natural setting of soloist Michael Davis, who thereby melds into the orchestral tapestry when required and floats ravishing pianissimos.

David Harbin


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