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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Symphony No. 2, A London Symphony (1913, rev. 1933-4) [46:01]
Concerto in A minor for Oboe and Strings (1942-3)* [19:16]
Stéphane Rancourt (oboe)*
Hallé/Sir Mark Elder
rec. *23 June 2010, BBC Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester; live, 14 October 2010, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
HALLÉ CD HLL 7529 [65:56]

Experience Classicsonline


It’s a little surprising that we don’t hear the Oboe Concerto by Vaughan Williams more often, especially since the repertoire is not exactly over-endowed with really good oboe concertos from the twentieth century. This new version from the Hallé is particularly welcome. The excellent soloist is the orchestra’s principal, Stéphane Rancourt. It’s a pity there’s no biographical information about him in the booklet so it’s worth saying that he is French-Canadian, born in Quebec in 1967. From 1995 to 2003 he occupied the principal’s chair with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra before moving to Manchester. This isn’t the first time he’s recorded a British oboe concerto; while with the RSNO he recorded the one by Alan Rawsthorne (review). The Rawsthorne, which dates from 1947 is a near contemporary of the Vaughan Williams piece and a factor common to both is that the accompaniment is scored for string orchestra.
Michael Kennedy says in his characteristically good notes – is there a more authoritative writer on this composer? – that RVW incorporated into the Oboe Concerto some sketch material that he’d considered using in the scherzo of the Fifth Symphony. That seems to me to be highly relevant because though I don’t know where in the concerto that material occurs much of the piece seems to share the spirit of that lovely symphony. It is cast in three movements, the first of which is wistful for much of the time though there is a perky episode (beginning at 2:10), which Rancourt and his colleagues deliver with a nice spring. They’re very persuasive too in the more lyrical, pensive music that constitutes the main element in this opening movement. The short second movement, a Minuet and Musette, is expertly enunciated by the soloist. The finale is almost as long as the preceding two movements combined. It contains the most complex music in the work and also makes the greatest demands in terms of the soloist’s virtuosity. A good deal of the music is agile in nature though there is some more lyrical material. Rancourt is equally impressive in either vein. He and his Hallé colleagues make an excellent case for this engaging work and I enjoyed the performance very much indeed.
The concerto is a studio recording whereas the symphony was recorded live in the orchestra’s Bridgewater Hall home. I should reassure readers that I wasn’t aware of any audience noise, whether listening through loudspeakers or headphones. Sir Mark presents the familiar score, as published in 1936 after RVW had revised it several times between 1918 and 1934, rather than the 1913 original score, which was the subject of a revelatory recording by the late Richard Hickox in 2000 (review). I’m glad that Elder has stuck with RVW’s published score. While the Hickox recording of the original was indeed revelatory it demonstrated that the composer was absolutely right to make the revisions, even at the price of excising some good music. The published version is so much tauter.
In this new performance the hushed, slow and suspenseful opening is done most sensitively. Indeed, the music begins almost imperceptibly, as it should. This sets the tone for a reading that will be high on atmosphere. The soft opening makes the start of the allegro, as the city bursts into teeming life, all the more exciting. The main body of the movement is bustling and lively and RVW’s colourful orchestration is vividly delivered. Elder’s reading has a fine sweep to it but all the detail is well observed too.
The wonderful slow movement opens hauntingly with the cor anglais solo heard against a daringly hushed orchestral background. As the movement unfolds this is but the first of a series of exquisite solos – the horn, trumpet, viola and clarinet all have their moments of distinction. Michael Kennedy tells us that the composer likened this movement to ‘Bloomsbury Square on a November afternoon’. The way Elder and his players sensitively touch in the orchestral colours makes it the aural equivalent of an impressionist painting: the playing in this movement is extremely refined. Not everything is pastel shaded, however; the climax (from 7:14) is ardent, though after that passion is spent the Hallé achieves a most poetic conclusion.
The playing in the scherzo is gossamer light at the start and for much of its duration though the more robust passages are played with suitable vigour. The great cry with which the finale opens is as arresting as RVW surely intended and the slow march that follows is put across with gravitas. Mr Kennedy suggests that in the finale the composer was depicting some elements of the darker side of London and there are certainly some disturbing undercurrents. The towering climax is built up superbly and its final statement, emphasised by a huge stroke on the gong, is very impressive indeed. No less impressive are the concluding pages. The subdued Westminster Chimes are heard as if recollected from the distant past. The epilogue, with its depiction of the Thames, is wonderfully atmospheric as RVW’s colourful and highly imaginative evocation of Edwardian London recedes into the distance.
I love all the Vaughan Williams symphonies: each has its own character and makes its own musical statement. However, the one for which I have the greatest affection is this one. I’ve heard several fine recordings of it over the years, especially those by Boult, Haitink, Handley and Previn. My favourite of all is the wonderfully vibrant and affectionate account recorded also in Manchester – but in the Free Trade Hall – by the Hallé under Sir John Barbirolli in December 1957 (review). The modern day Hallé once again has a chief conductor who excels in and clearly loves English music. Fifty-three years later this partnership has produced a version of the ‘London Symphony’ that matches the achievement of ‘Glorious John’ in this work. However, Sir Mark Elder’s version obviously has the benefit of modern digital treatment and the recorded sound for both works is excellent.
This disc continues the rich vein of recordings of English music by Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé. Long may they continue!
John Quinn

See also review by Michael Cookson