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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910) [15:41]
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Antonio Pappano
rec. live 15 March 2020.
Reviewed as downloaded with pdf booklet from hyperion-records.co.uk
(16.44.1, 24/96 and 24/192 available) Download only
LSO LIVE LSO0366 [15:41]

A short review for a short recording, available as a download only, from Hyperion in 16-bit and hi-res 24-bit and from Amazon in mp3 only.

I never got round to reviewing the LSO Live recording of Vaughan Williams’ Symphonies Nos. 4 and 6, conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano (LSO0867), largely because reviews by two colleagues pretty well said it all. John Quinn made it a Recording of the Month review – and David McDade, on whose behalf I originally obtained the download, as part of the team which I co-ordinate, was also impressed, though he thought the performances lacked just ‘the last bit of fire and the last ounce of mystery’ – review. My own thoughts are closer to the former than the latter.

Pappano is British by birth, though he has spent much of his life in the USA, and he became best known for conducting Italian opera, though his recordings include a wide range of other styles, from Birtwistle to Wagner. Even so, he comes to Vaughan Williams from a slightly different angle from Boult or Barbirolli among older conductors, or Elder, Brabbins or Manze on more recent recordings. That slightly different angle certainly doesn’t disqualify him, as demonstrated by a recent Sony release of British music which comes from a very different angle. Entitled Very British, on it a German orchestra, Metamorphosen Berlin, and conductor, Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt offer performances of Elgar, Britten, Warlock and Jenkins. They include an Elgar Serenade for Strings not outclassed even by the classic Barbirolli, a Britten Simple Symphony offering an alternative to the composer’s own recording and a very fine account of Warlock’s Capriol Suite, concluding with music by Karl Jenkins – a very fine piece adapted from music for an advert. (Sony G0100045460061, my review pending; why do we have to have such complicated catalogue numbers?).

If these two powerful symphonies are a little too strong for your taste, but would like to sample Pappano’s Vaughan Williams, you can turn to the LSO Live recording of just the Tallis Fantasia. There could hardly be a greater contrast than that between the two symphonies and the ethereal Fantasia, recorded in the same concert as No.6 on that fateful night before live concerts were silenced by the Covid lockdown. I believe that the Fantasia was programmed to soothe the small, nervous, social-distancing audience before the symphony and the Britten Violin Concerto; if it’s not quite the most ethereal recording that I have heard, I’m sure that it served that purpose very well. On the other hand, it’s just a shade too purposeful, a little too business-like for me, though I should add that two reviews of the live performance thought more highly of the performance than I did.

Among the recordings that I would choose for my Desert Island, I really wish that Warner would restore the Classics for Pleasure recording of the Tallis Fantasia, Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus and Job, and would do so at a more reasonable price than the exorbitant 15+ being asked for the downloads, without booklets, of these remnants of Vernon Handley’s very fine Vaughan Williams. The extra minute or so which he gave the Tallis Fantasia to breathe just gives him the edge on Pappano, but Pappano easily excels Roman Simovic on another LSO Live recording, who pelts through the work in 14:26. John Quinn was spot on in writing that the work eludes Simovic, the spirit of the music totally absent – review. I thought it routine and uninviting – review. Pappano gets much closer, if not quite close enough, to the heart of music which left Ivor Gurney and Herbert Howells wandering the streets of Gloucester in a daze when they first heard it.

Overall, then, while I very much like Pappano’s recording of the two symphonies, his near-miss account of the Tallis Fantasia leaves me returning to Handley and, most of all, to the classic Barbirolli with its Elgar and Delius couplings (Warner 0851872, download only – 5-star review of earlier reissue). Of modern recordings, the Manze recording with James Ehnes and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic is well worth considering – it’s coupled not with a symphony but with The Lark Ascending, Serenade to Music, Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, the Greensleeves Fantasia and the English Folk Song Suite (ONYX4212 – review).

In my review I wondered if Manze and the RLPO would give us more ‘miscellaneous’ Vaughan Williams – perhaps the Oxford Elegy, of which the evocative Westbrook, King’s and Willcocks recording remains unrivalled (Warner 2435672215, download only, no booklet). Maybe Pappano is the man to do that.

Brian Wilson




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