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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Symphony No 4 in F minor (1935) [32:39]
Symphony No 6 in E minor (1950) [35:27]
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Antonio Pappano
rec. Barbican Hall, London 12 December 2019 (No.4) and 15 March 2020 (No.6)
Reviewed as downloaded in 24/96 sound with pdf booklet from Also available in 16/44.1 and 24/192 formats.
LSO LIVE LSO0867 SACD [68:06]

In his personal note included with the liner notes for this release, Antonio Pappano mentions the significant dates of these two live recordings. The Fourth was taped on election night whereas the Sixth was given on the last night before the pandemic snuffed out concert life. To those two, we can add a third with the news that Pappano is to replace Simon Rattle at the helm of the LSO. Hardly an unknown quantity, this recording gives us a glimpse of the potential relationship between conductor and orchestra.

Vaughan Williams’ Fourth symphony was premiered by Sir Adrian Boult in 1935. This represented a gap of 13 years since the Third, A Pastoral Symphony. Whilst the two works could hardly be more different in temperament, they share many similarities in approach. The clashing dissonances of the Third are whispered where, right from the first bar, they are screamed in the Fourth. Likewise after the more programmatic early symphonies, the Third and Fourth are concise and classical in form. The latter is particularly severe in this regard.

Both of the symphonies on this disc have fared well in the recording studio and there is barely a single recording of either in the catalogue that cannot be safely recommended. The comments that follow are designed to sift the exceptional from the very good and it should be said at the outset that this new recording is very good indeed.

Qualities I look for in an exceptional account of the Fourth are violent force, sensitivity to the lyrical passages and an attunement to the mystical side of the symphony. It is not easy to pull off all these equally well within a coherent view of the whole. Where Pappano does excel is in the angular, arching second subject. A surprising number of otherwise fine performances struggle with this – most recently Manze in 2016 on Onyx 4161 (Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4 - review) but even the normally ultra reliable Handley in 1991 (Nos. 3 and 4: CfP 5753102, download only), both with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. Boult with the LPO from 1953 (Naxos Classical Archives 980371, or Eloquence 4786047, Nos. 4 and 6, both budget price and download only - review of Decca complete set) is more than a match for Pappano in this passage but the prize, as in so many regards with this symphony, goes to Haitink with the same orchestra in 1996 (Complete Symphonies: Warner 9847592, 7 CDs, budget price - review).

Pappano generates plenty of excitement and his handling of the hushed coda of the first movement is beautifully played and sensitively handled. Sadly, put on that same passage with either Boult or Haitink and things go up a level. Hairs stand up on the back of my neck. I found myself at first wondering how much this had to do with the recording or with the recording venue. On repeated listening, I decided that this is remarkably well recorded, given that it is live, and that the engineers had to deal with the characteristically dead acoustic of the Barbican, so familiar to London concert goers. The dryness of the acoustic doesn’t help in these quieter moments but I do feel that something in the performance is also a little too direct.

Boult is simply wonderful from first note to last. His account has real sweep but he knows how to bring out the detail without impeding onward momentum. The vintage Decca sound, recorded in the more generous acoustic of the Kingsway Hall, still packs a sonic punch. Haitink enjoys the benefit of more modern sound, and what sound it is – taped at the Watford Colosseum. Pappano, I’m afraid, can’t touch either of these recordings, good though he is. He works up considerable momentum in the mighty fugal epilogue but then rather rushes his gates in the final bars. Haitink is as close to definitive here as one could reasonably expect: the absolute finality of his final note is shattering.

The Sixth is the product of the closing years of the Second World War and, as a result, has tended to be seen as a response to that conflict. The finale, in particular, has been taken as reflecting some kind of post nuclear, apocalyptic wasteland. The composer distanced himself from such programmatic interpretations, quoting Shakespeare in relation to the finale: “we are such things as dreams are made on/and our little life is rounded with a sleep”. It represents a partial return to the dissonant style of the Fourth, though it is a very different work in many ways.

When appraising versions of the mighty Sixth Symphony I tend to focus on four key moments: the broad restatement of the second subject right at the end of the first movement; the climax of the “rat-a-tat” passage toward the end of the second movement; the ferocious restatement of the saxophone theme from the trio at the climax of the scherzo; and finally the atmosphere of the finale.

In the first of these moments, Pappano is amongst the very best. All that operatic experience shines through in a glorious singing statement of this wonderful melody. Like Andrew Davis with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Warner Apex 0927495842, budget price), he resists the urge to overcook things, placing the true climactic point of the movement at the eruption of the dissonant music with which the symphony began that follows immediately after.

In the second and third moments, Pappano scores less well. Overall Davis and Boult are creepier and more menacing in this movement but where they really pull away from Pappano is in the ferocity of these two climaxes. In the second movement, for the plangent cor anglais solo at the end to have its full effect, the brutal rat-a-tat passage must come to a suitably cataclysmic end. Compared to Davis, Pappano and the LSO are just a little bit polite. This effect is amplified at the peak of the scherzo. This is music that should sound sufficiently demonic to usher in the hushed shock of the finale. On this new recording it sounds merely grand.

The finale, however, is stunning in Pappano’s hands. Like Davis, Boult and especially Haitink, he understands how to get a true pianissimo from his players: very quiet but without loss of intensity. But where Pappano is very good, Haitink, above all others, is terrifying in this movement, even though his account overall is no match for Davis or Boult.

I have already mentioned Manze (Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6 Onyx 4184 - review - review) but I really ought to mention fine performances by Mark Elder and the Hallé from 2017, identically coupled to the Pappano (CDHLL7547: Recording of the Month - review - review). Whilst I don’t think Elder shakes me from my adherence to Boult, Davis and Haitink in these symphonies, he enjoys a more generous acoustic than Pappano. Strangely, neither Haitink nor Davis need yield much to these more modern recordings sonically. Like Pappano, Elder is very good in the more lyrical passages, his second subject in the Fourth’s opening movement is exemplary if not quite as ripe as it in Pappano’s hands.

In the final analysis, Pappano lacks the last bit of fire and the last ounce of mystery to elevate this disc to the level of the very best. As a calling card for the future relationship between conductor and orchestra, it is a very inviting prospect.

David McDade

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