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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Symphony No.4 (1934) [34:34]
Arthur BENJAMIN (1893-1960)
Symphony (1945) [39:06]
Hallé Orchestra/John Barbirolli
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
rec. radio broadcasts, 30 June 1948; 1950. ADD. mono

Experience Classicsonline

A decade apart, and straddling a world war, these two symphonies heave with conflict and seem to smoulder among battlefield dawns. This release is particularly noteworthy in that it preserves the world première of the Benjamin symphony, presumably given in Cheltenham Town Hall and the town’s music festival, and Barbirolli’s first-ever performance of the Vaughan Williams Fourth. 

There’s a dove-grey Atlantic swell and fury to the Arthur Benjamin symphony. If you know Benjamin only from his lighter pieces then brace yourself. It’s a work I rate very highly indeed and sits comfortably in the same company as Prokofiev 6, as RVW 4, as Bax 5 and as Hubert Clifford’s Symphony - the latter on Chandos (review). Its musical ideas and their constantly inventive treatment are memorable. Not once does the mask slip. I can attest to this having known this dramatic and exciting symphony since 1981 from a radio broadcast copied to me on audio-cassette by a friend in the USA. The recovery work done by the Barbirolli Society and Karl Miller presents this gloriously emotional and emotive symphony and performance in the best sound I have ever heard. You must make allowance for a constricted and sometimes strangulated treble, a bass prone to crumble and the occasional cough. You know what? After the first few minutes all that aural graffiti no longer matters. Blitzkrieg-quick Barbirolli takes an unshakable grip on you and there’s no remission. This is Barbirolli at high noon; don’t believe me? Listen to the finale. It rips and roars until it comes full circle with the same Atlantic swell that opened the symphony some forty minutes earlier. Glorious.
There are modern recordings of the Benjamin Symphony from Wordsworth (Lyrita) and Lyndon-Gee (Marco Polo 8.223764) but neither of them smokes and flames like this. Of these two the Lyrita is now to be preferred if you insist on modern sound. As RVW dedicated his Fifth Symphony to Sibelius so Benjamin dedicated his to RVW. Indeed there are turbulent echoes of the RVW Fourth in the Benjamin.
Speaking of the RVW Fourth, while the Benjamin is as quick as I have heard it the RVW is taken at a momentously deliberate gait. As the liner-note reminds us Barbirolli takes five minutes longer in 1950 than the composer did with the same orchestra in 1937 for HMV. If Barbirolli is less breathlessly tumultuous than the composer he certainly keeps up the tensile strength while allowing us a more measured appreciation of the incidents and ideas. There’s more light and air here.
The notes by Robert Matthew-Walker are predictably helpful.
There we have it: two fascinating documents of what would otherwise have been ephemeral. The RVW has something new and different to tell us. The incendiary and kinetic Benjamin shows us what Barbirolli was like when the interpretative furnace burnt as dazzlingly as Golovanov, Cantelli, Kleiber or Mravinsky.
Rob Barnett 

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