Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Symphony No. 2 A London Symphony (1913 rev. 1936) [46:33]
Concerto in A minor for oboe and strings (1942/43) [19:20]
Stéphane Rancourt (oboe)
Hallé Orchestra/Sir Mark Elder
rec. 14 October 2010 (symphony), 23 June 2010 (concerto), Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, England
HALLÉ CD HLL 7529 [65:56]
Now in his twelfth season as musical director Sir Mark has had great success in building the Hallé’s international reputation. They go from strength to strength as demonstrated by the 2010 Gramophone Awards where they scooped both the Opera and Concerto categories with their live Götterdämmerung and Elgar Violin Concerto with soloist Thomas Zehetmair. At the time of writing another dual success has been announced in the 2011 Gramophone Awards for Elder conducting Elgar’s The Kingdom in the Choral category and Ryan Wigglesworth directing Harrison Birtwistle’s music in the Contemporary section.
Vaughan Williams’ A London Symphony is much loved by Sir Mark. It’s a score that has become something of a party-piece for him. Last season I had the good fortune to attend two of his Hallé performances. The first took place in October 2010 at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall and a recording of that concert is presented here. The second, given in Kendal, Cumbria in February 2011, was equally fine.
It’s a much revised score. Today we normally hear a version with cuts from the original 1913 score. In the 2001 Gramophone Awards the late Richard Hickox won the Record of the Year for his recording of the London Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra on Chandos CHAN 9902. That remains a wonderful recording that I doubt will be surpassed. It boasts the added interest of using the composer’s original 1913 version, restoring the cuts and including some 20 minutes of previously unrecorded music.
Eldar proves an inspirational guide in the London Symphony and the Hallé respond to his direction with enthusiasm and assurance. This is a gloriously convincing depiction of a pulsating and multi-faceted metropolis. The predominant images are of a post-Edwardian London cloaked in fog and shrouded in river mist. The manner is very much in keeping with the work of French impressionist Claude Monet and the Manchester scenes of Adolphe Valette. Especially impressive is the sure sense of the music’s structure. Confidently bringing out qualities of warmth and lyricism the performance sounded so fresh and natural. I loved the swinging, forward momentum with tempo changes evincing an unforced fluidity and the sound shaped quite marvellously. Some of the playing in the opening movement made the hairs stand up on the back of the neck, such was the intensity of the emotions conveyed. Following the ethereal opening of the slow movement the passage for the single trumpet and horn playing over the strings is remarkable. Said to evoke Bloomsbury Square, this atmospheric music depicts bleak Fen country on a grey and misty, autumn morning. From its rather buttoned-up opening the Scherzo gains in confidence and becomes more daring. Vaughan Williams certainly makes full use of his glorious dance-like melodies. The Finale contains music of great nobility and substance. It opens with a plaintive cry of anguish. The power and intensity of the climaxes is remarkable. I enjoyed the expressive passage that evoked the heady sights, sounds and colours of the crowded London streets from the perspective of Westminster Bridge and The Strand. After the ‘Westminster chimes’ the Epilogue, veiled in fog and river mist, speaks of mystery and ambiguity before fading to nothing. I recall how the Bridgewater Hall audience enthusiastically acknowledged this towering performance.

The Oboe Concerto is a later work, composed and revised in 1942/43. The score bears a dedication to Léon Goossens who gave the première with the Liverpool Philharmonic under Malcolm Sargent in 1944. In their principal oboist Stéphane Rancourt the Hallé have one of the finest exponents I have heard. He is certainly up there with Albrecht Mayer of the Berlin Philharmonic. Countless times at concerts I have heard Rancourt’s glorious tone radiating out - a great joy. Recorded live at the Bridgewater Hall in June 2010 the pastoral nature of this engaging three movement score seems tailor-made for this talented soloist who plays almost continuously supported by the glowing Hallé strings. Right from the opening the pastoral leanings of the music are evident evoking a near elysian spirit. Full of vitality the jaunty central section has great appeal. Open air freshness pervades the very brief Minuet and Musette revealing a quite delightful if restive quality. The splendid Finale opens in a good-natured manner. A darker temperament then becomes evident followed by a strong melancholic heave. Weighted with sorrow and regret this could easily be a lament for those lost in the terrible world war that was still raging. At the conclusion the music looks back to the geniality of the opening bars. Showing his mettle Rancourt gives a masterly performance of this predominantly genial score. Tempered with an inner tranquillity and calm introspection the writing at times discloses a shadowy undercurrent. Rancourt’s fluency and breadth of expression is remarkable. Sounding more reedy than creamy, the tone of the instrument as caught here, feels perfect.
Eschewing flamboyance and histrionics Sir Mark exudes assurance and a calm authority founded on immaculate preparation. The palette of colours is highly impressive. Especially noticeable is the silky smooth timbre of the strings; clear and radiant and not dominated from below by the cello and double basses. The expressive and responsive woodwind section is out of the top drawer and the outstandingly toned brass manage their volume sensibly.
Recorded four months apart the sound quality of both live Bridgewater Hall performances is excellent, being vividly clear and well balanced. Vaughan Williams authority Michael Kennedy, who was in the audience, wrote the booklet essay which is as informative and lucid as we have come to expect.
This is certainly a stunning live disc from Sir Mark and the Hallé and will garner significant praise.
Michael Cookson
A stunning live disc that will garner significant praise.