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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Concerto for Two Pianos (1926-31, arr. 1946) (version for two pianos and orchestra by Joseph Cooper in collaboration with the composer) [26:30]
A London Symphony (Symphony No. 2) (1913, rev. 1920) [48:41]
Leon McCawley (piano 1); John Lenehan (piano 2)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Martin Yates
rec. 2015, RSNO Centre, Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow

After its first performance in 1914 Vaughan Williams made a series of significant revisions to the score of A London Symphony. The most substantial of these were carried out from 1918 onwards prior to publication in 1920. Further work on the symphony followed in the 1930s and the score that we know today was finally published in 1936.

In December 2000, with the consent of Ursula Vaughan Williams, Richard Hickox made a revelatory recording of the original 1913 score for Chandos (review). At that time Mrs Vaughan Williams’ consent extended only to the making of that recording but so great was the interest that it aroused that I believe she later relaxed the restriction to allow further opportunities for the original to be heard.

What Martin Yates gives us here is the 1920 published score. In fact it’s not the first time that this version has been recorded. When Sir Eugene Goossens recorded it in 1941 with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra orchestral parts of the 1920 version were still in circulation in the USA so that version was used. The Goossens recording has appeared on CD (Biddulph WHL 016) but the sound is, inevitably, somewhat limited so this new Dutton Epoch recording completely supersedes it, though the recording still has interest and I for one will not be discarding my copy.

Anyone listening to the Hickox recording will notice radical differences between the 1913 version of the score and the familiar 1936 edition, especially in the last two movements – only the first movement was never revised by VW. There are fewer differences between the 1920 score and the 1936 version of the symphony. VW pruned the 1913 score radically in his first revision but subsequent surgery was much less invasive. Some of the later revision work (between 1918 and the final edition of 1936) concerned re-touching the scoring in places. In these further revisions, Lewis Foreman tells us in the Dutton notes, VW excised a total of 12 bars from the slow movement and, in the finale, a further 36 bars, 25 of which were taken out of the Epilogue.

I’ve found it very interesting to compare Martin Yates’ new recording with the Hickox account of the 1913 score. Hickox takes 61:19 compared with a playing time of 48:41 for Yates. However the timing difference of nearly 13 minutes doesn’t arise simply because Hickox uses a more extensive text. The conductors’ respective treatments of the first movement are directly comparable since the music played is identical. I was intrigued to see that Hickox takes 15:04 for the first movement while Yates takes 13:17. Yates does the mysterious opening well, establishing a good level of suspense. Hickox, however, is significantly more expansive – and, it must be said, more magical with wonderfully hushed playing from the LSO. You can tell how much broader is the Hickox treatment of the opening by the fact that he arrives at the Allegro risoluto at 3:29; Yates gets there at 2:40. I think Yates’ treatment of the opening is good. Hickox is more risky but he gets away with it – others might not – and the results are wonderful. Yates is appreciably quicker than Hickox in the Allegro risoluto. I admire the energy he injects into the music but I do wonder if it’s not a bit breathless; for my taste Yates doesn’t quite allow the music to breathe sufficiently. Hickox is more conventional in his pacing. The bustle subsides eventually (7:41 – 9:51 in the Yates reading) with a lovely string and harp transition which precedes a folk-like passage. Yates does this very well; there’s the right degree of affection. In the same passage (9:01 – 11:22) the Hickox performance is very beautiful – and even better played – but Hickox lingers a bit too lovingly. On balance my preference is for Hickox’s account of the first movement but there’s a great deal to admire in the Yates reading.

Once we’re past the first movement direct comparisons between Yates and Hickox become less easy – and, in a way, less relevant – because they are playing different texts. Both conductors play the lovely second movement very well indeed and their respective treatments of it are not dissimilar – the fact that Yates takes just under a minute less is largely explained by the small cuts as compared with the 1913 score. Yates is poetic and atmospheric in the way he handles the movement and the climax (from 9:07) is broad and noble. Listeners familiar with the 1936 score will notice one significant difference shortly after the climax. Between 12:08 and 12:39 the violins provide a ponticello accompaniment to various solo instruments such as horn and cello. Lewis Foreman tells us that Bernard Herrmann likened the violin sound to “a damp drizzle of rain” and greatly regretted the excision. I agree.

So far as I can tell without seeing a score the musical text of the scherzo that Yates plays is the same as we’re used to hearing, though there may be some subtle changes to the scoring. I like Yates’ lithe, scampering account. I think Hickox makes slightly more of the brief “concertina” episode but perhaps VW altered the orchestration of this between 1913 and 1920. What you won’t hear in this Yates performance is a substantial passage towards the end of the movement (5:45-10:08 in the Hickox performance) that VW had cut completely by 1920. This is an episode of slower, rather dark music. It’s fascinating to hear in its own right and there are definite thematic links with the movement as a whole. However, despite these links I don’t really understand what VW was seeking to portray in this passage; it doesn’t seem to “fit”. Whilst glad to have the opportunity to hear it in the Hickox performance I’m in no doubt that when VW wielded the blue pencil he made the right decision.

The impassioned start of the last movement is very powerful in the Yates performance. At first I thought his tempo for the following Maestoso alla Marcia (quasi lento) was a bit on the brisk side, not respecting sufficiently the quasi lento qualification. However, I’ve come round to Yates’ way of thinking. He directs an ardent account of the Allegro and the three-fold climax is imposing though, ideally, I wish he’d broadened the tempo a little at the climax. There are 11 bars cut from the original 1913 score in the first part of the finale. Some of these occur in one passage (4:23-5:23 in the Hickox performance) which, to my ears interrupts and impedes the flow of the Allegro. These are bars which are interesting in themselves but their excision improves the structure of the movement at this point. There’s also a short ruminative passage, initially from strings, leading up to the Westminster Chimes (6:30 – 9:03 in Hickox) which were edited by VW after 1913. The remaining cuts, amounting to 25 bars, come in the Epilogue. The excisions seem to involve bars that are frankly repetitive. Listening to the Hickox version of the Epilogue immediately after the Yates performance I think the 1920 version is tauter and thus preferable.

All VW aficionados will regard the Hickox performance of the 1913 score as an essential purchase. For myself, I wouldn’t want to listen to it in preference to the familiar 1936 score but it’s absolutely fascinating to hear how the score sounded in the first place, especially when it’s splendidly played and recorded as is the case in Hickox’s Chandos release. The 1920 version doesn’t quite represent a halfway house in the sense that it’s much closer to the 1936 edition than the 1913 version. But by 1920 VW wasn’t quite there yet and so it’s intriguing to experience how this colourful, lovable symphony evolved. Martin Yates and the RSNO have done the score full justice.

The Dutton recording is excellent. It was auditioned recently in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio and the verdict on the slow movement was that “the recording itself is admirable with a wide dynamic range. The climaxes open up excellently – the last one is sumptuous. We felt this was very successful, both as a performance and as a recording.” At that stage I hadn’t heard the rest of the symphony but now that I’ve done so I think the verdict holds good.

The coupling is an interesting one. In the late 1920s VW wrote a piano concerto for Harriet Cohen, which was first heard in 1933. Later, in 1946, Joseph Cooper, working in collaboration with the composer, revised it into a concerto for two pianos, which is what is recorded here. The first of the three movements is strong meat indeed. A good deal of the music is vigorous, toccata-like and almost aggressive though some respite does come in the shape of some lighter dancing material. Much of the time the music seems defiant and it’s often unremittingly loud. There’s no doubt that VW sees the piano as a percussion instrument. Strangely, though, when the cadenza comes it’s a surprisingly modest affair. Only one piano (Piano I?) is involved, I think, and the soloist ruminates in music from which chords are entirely banished. This leads straight into the Romanza.

We’re in much calmer waters here. The music is lovely and it’s most sensitively payed by all concerned. Eventually (from 5:04) the tone becomes rapturous. This movement is an oasis of tranquillity and it soon proves to be a much-needed oasis for the third movement erupts with a stentorian trombone interjection that one almost resents as it shatters the calm of the slow movement. There follows turbulent, jagged fugal music which, as Lewis Foreman points out, offers a premonition of what was soon to come in the finale of the Fourth Symphony. There’s a cadenza (3:02 – 4:52) which this time involves both pianists and which more than makes up for the slender textures of the first movement cadenza. This leads straight into the Tedesca section of the finale. Heralded by a gong stroke, there’s a further and even bigger cadenza (7:33-10:16). This starts very powerfully but eventually subsides into delicate music in which display is all but eschewed. The cadenza flows seamlessly into a subdued conclusion to the concerto which comes as something of a surprise after so much sound and fury in the outer movements of the concerto.

I must admit that this concerto would not be my first choice, or anywhere near it, among VW works despite the delights of the Romanza. It’s a piece I admire rather than love. Furthermore, I’m not entirely sure how well the transcription for two pianos works. I know the solo piano version through the 1994 EMI recording by Piers Lane and Vernon Handley – there are at least two other recordings, which I’ve not heard, one also conducted by Handley on which the soloist is Howard Shelley (review) and the other with Ashley Wass and the conductor James Judd (review). Sampling the Lane recording again, the use of just a single piano makes the music sound less heavyweight; the thunderous nature of much of the outer movements is to some extent mitigated, beneficially, I think. To be fair to Joseph Cooper, though, it may be that the very full sound of the new Dutton recording is a factor – EMI’s Lane/Handley recording, made in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, is somewhat more distanced.

There’s no doubt that Leon McCawley, John Lenehan and Martin Yates make a strong – and sometimes forthright – case for this concerto.

I should add that it was the Cooper two piano version that introduced the work to the record-buying public through an EMI Classics recording by Vitya Vronsky and Victor Babin with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult.

This is a very valuable disc from Dutton. The musical content is of great interest to Vaughan Williams devotees and the performances are excellent.

John Quinn



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