VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Sym. No. 2, “A London Symphony”; Sym. No. 8 ‒ Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orch. / Andrew Manze ‒ Onyx

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 2 in G, “A London Symphony”; Symphony No. 8 in d‒ Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orch. / Andrew Manze ‒ Onyx 4115, 75:33 (4/29/16) ****:

Symphonies from the opposite ends of Vaughan Williams’ symphonic career. Interesting programming choice and fine performances.

It’s interesting to note that Ralph Vaughan Williams’ first two symphonies started life as something other than symphonies. Symphony No. 1 is a reworking of movements intended as a cantata about the sea based on the poetry of Walt Whitman, a favorite author among English composers at the turn of the century. The result: a vast choral symphony that was really something new, especially in English music. A hit at the 1910 Leeds Festival and critically acclaimed as well, The Sea Symphony would seem to have immediately precipitated Vaughan Williams’ long and successful career as a symphonist. Not so, apparently. For some reason Vaughan Williams had misgivings about writing a symphony thereafter and had to be persuaded by his friend the English composer George Butterworth to consider a new symphonic project. So Vaughan Williams converted a work in progress, a tone poem about the city of London, into his Symphony No. 2, which was premiered in 1914.

A couple more unusual facts about the Second Symphony. Fact 1: On the verge of the First World War, Vaughn Williams had the misfortune of sending his copy of the symphony to the German conductor Fritz Busch. It was lost, a victim of the conflict that would cost George Butterworth his life, but not before he and conductor Geoffrey Toye, who had premiered the symphony, helped Vaughan Williams reconstruct the work from orchestral parts. Fact 2: The symphony now reconstituted, the composer submitted it to the first Carnegie Competition in 1917 with the result that the piece was accepted for performance. But Vaughan Williams hastily withdrew it so that he could work out some kinks, allowing publication only in 1920, after which A London Symphony quickly established itself in the repertoire.

Just as A Sea Symphony retained elements of the earlier cantata Vaughan Williams had been working on, so A London Symphony remains a dramatic tone painting of the city, something that concerned the composer since he wanted to create a genuine symphonic experience for the listener. But Vaughan Williams’ fine sense of musical architecture and superb orchestration created  a work that is justly the favorite among his nine symphonies. From the foggy percolations of the opening Lento, with Big Ben hazily tolling in the distance, the work evokes the many moods of the great city. London comes awake with noise and bluster in the ensuing Allegro risoluto (interestingly subtitled molto pesante—it’s definitely a Cockney London that Vaughan Williams invokes). The second movement, which the composer said portrayed “Bloomsbury Square on a November afternoon” is quietly reflective, while the third-movement Scherzo, subtitled Nocturne, is a musical depiction of fun-loving London at night, complete with the sounds of harmonicas and hurdy-gurdies. The finale includes a stately if somewhat somber march that evokes imperial London, before a final dissolve into the mists in which the piece began.

I find that Andrew Manze and his orchestra bring just the right balance of bustle and reflection to the symphony. It’s perhaps tempting to overemphasize one or the other aspect of the piece; some interpretations almost make Vaughan Williams’ noisier passages in the first and final movements sound apocalyptic. But this is an interpretation in which extremes are avoided, resulting in a vivid series of sound pictures that still manages to sustain the compelling arc of the work from beginning to end.

Manze’s recording also has the advantage of a very interesting choice of companion work, the Symphony No. 8, premiered in 1956, forty-two years after the debut of A London Symphony. And here we have a completely different work, a piece of abstract music in which sound and structure are paramount. In fact, while the symphony is tonally conservative, it has some experimental gestures that add to its interest. The second movement Scherzo is scored for winds alone, a mocking little piece that comically juxtaposes high and low woodwinds and brass in a lively contrapuntal texture. In contrast, the slow movement is scored for strings only and recalls Vaughan Williams’ attachment to the art of Elizabethan England: it has the sober beauty of English consort music. At both ends of the piece are boisterous movements in variations form, but as Vaughan Williams notes in the subtitle of the first movement, they are sets of variations without a theme (Variazioni senza tema). Both movements ring the changes on curt musical motives that aren’t quite melodies. Vaughan Williams titles the last movement Toccata; it employs, as he quipped, “all the ’phones and ’spiels known to the composer.” Tuned percussion instruments—vibraphone, tubular bells, tuned gongs, xylophone, celesta, and glockenspiel—make a wonderfully mellifluous racket (I think the oxymoron applies here!).

Again, the performance is an excellent one, full of the life-affirming joy that Vaughan Williams wrote into the piece. I’m happy to say that Andrew Manze, once a stalwart of the early music scene, continues to grow as a conductor of works both ancient and modern. This is the first installment in a complete cycle of Vaughan Williams’ symphonies with the fine-sounding Liverpool band. I hope and trust subsequent releases will be as well played and recorded as the current one.

—Lee Passarella

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