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Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Symphony No. 6 in E minor (1944-47, rev 1950)
English Folk Songs (1912)
Symphony No. 8 in D minor (1953-56)
England, my England (1941)
Roderick Williams (baritone)
BBC Symphony Chorus & Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
rec. 2019/21
Texts included
HYPERION CDA68396 [74]

Unsurprisingly, the restrictions which arose from the Covid pandemic, mainly in 2020, have impacted the recording of Martyn Brabbins’ cycle of Vaughan Williams symphonies for Hyperion. I’m sure the initial intention was to complete the cycle and release all the recordings by 2022, in time for the celebration of the composer’s 150th anniversary. As it is, the previous volume, which included Symphony No 5, was released as long ago as late 2020.

A feature of this series has been the inclusion of rarely heard short VW pieces, some of them previously unrecorded. That continues here. Michael Kennedy thought that the English Folk Songs were probably arranged in 1912. There are three arrangements: ‘Tarry Trowsers’, ‘The Carter’ and ‘Ward the Pirate’. The scoring is for unison chorus and orchestra. They have never been published and are presented here in an edition by Martyn Brabbins. Robert Matthew-Walker suggests in his perceptive booklet essay that the present recording may be the first time the arrangements have ever been heard. I suspect VW designed them to be sung – and possibly played – by amateurs; the music is pretty straightforward. The pieces are enjoyable to hear and the members of the BBC Symphony Chorus sing them with polished gusto. To be honest, I wouldn’t put these in the front rank of the composer’s many folk song arrangements but it’s good to have them added to the VW discography (I assume this is a premiere recording). I particularly liked the robust tune of ‘Ward the Pirate’. England, my England is a bit of an oddity in that, as Robert Matthew-Walker observes, it is a rare example of nationalism in VW’s output. I can’t better his description: “an extended tune of quasi-Elgarian stamp, candid in expression and sorely needed at the time early in World War II when Britain stood alone”. VW set a poem of four stanzas by one William Ernest Henley (1849-1903). The words are, shall we say, of their time. What sets the piece apart, though, is the sincere nobility of the composer’s confident, triple-time tune which raises the spirits. So, too, does the committed delivery of the music by Roderick Williams and the BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra.

Clearly, though, the main interest lies in the symphonies. From the turbulent opening pages of the Sixth it’s evident that Brabbins has the measure of the score. When VW introduces the compound-time, ‘galumphing’ music I like the lively pace that Brabbins adopts and the energy with which he and the orchestra invest the music. In this episode Robert Matthew-Walker opines that VW “eases the tension”. Relative to the emotionally fraught opening music that may be true up to a point, but I’d take mild issue with the statement. I think there’s still plenty of tension in the music and that’s definitely the case in the present performance. The expansive lyrical tune that derives from the ‘galumphing’ music is spacious but purposeful in Brabbins’ hands.

The second movement is full of tension, whether suppressed or overt, and there’s a distinct air of menace in the music. Brabbins controls everything expertly, eventually building to a towering climax. The scherzo, with its spiky, jazzy rhythms, sounds malign here and I admire the biting nature of the performance very much. After that, the Epilogue steals in mysteriously. This is a daring movement; it’s a mysterious enigma. Brabbins obtains very withdrawn, sensitive playing from the BBCSO in a performance that is properly other-worldly. I think this is a very fine account of the Sixth.

Even today, when Vaughan Williams is rightly acclaimed as one of the UK’s foremost composers, his last three symphonies are not rated as highly as I believe they should be. I think Robert Matthew-Walker makes a very interesting general point about the Eighth in his essay. He compares it with a number of works of literature, including Alice in Wonderland and the works of J. R. R. Tolkein, describing the symphony as “a positive musical fantasy, which speaks with relevance to present-day society”. By comparison with the preceding symphonies, it is relatively simple in design and it is certainly direct in utterance. But, as in the seven predecessor symphonies, we find VW expertly and inventively exploiting the modern symphony orchestra.

The composer described the first movement as ‘variations in search of a theme’. I like Martyn Brabbins’ way with the music. The quicker passages are full of zest but it’s the slower, expressive episodes which really impress me: there’s nobility in these passages and Brabbins brings out that quality. The second movement is scored for woodwind and brass. Much of the music shows the witty, incisive side of VW and the BBCSO gives a nicely punchy performance. It’s the turn of the strings to be in the spotlight for the ‘Cavatina’. This movement is a serene interlude between the second and fourth movements; here, its beautifully played. VW famously requested – if memory serves me correctly - ‘all available gongs and ’phones’ in the finale and certainly the percussion section is to the fore. The movement is defined by bluff good cheer. It sounds as if Brabbins and the orchestra are having fun here, though there’s no excessive relaxation; the playing is as precise as you could wish for. This is an excellent performance of the Eighth which I enjoyed very much indeed.

This is another very welcome instalment in Martyn Brabbins’ Vaughan Williams symphony cycle. The performances are both authoritative and excellent. Happily – but unsurprisingly – producer Andrew Keener and engineers Simon Eadon and Dave Rowell have captured the performances in excellent sound. As I’ve already indicated, the documentation is very good.

After the Covid-imposed hiatus I hope that Hyperion will soon be able to issue recordings of the remaining two symphonies to complete this fine cycle.

John Quinn

The Hyperion Vaughan Williams symphony cycle
A Sea Symphony
A London Symphony (1920 version)
Symphony No 3 ‘Pastoral’ & Symphony No 4
Symphony No 5

Published: October 12, 2022

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