VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Concerto for Two Pianos; A London Symphony (No. 2) – Leon McCawley & John Lenehan, pianos/ Royal Scottish Nat. Orch./ Martin Yates – Dutton Epoch

RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Concerto for Two Pianos; A London Symphony (No. 2) (1920 version) – Leon McCawley & John Lenehan, pianos/Royal Scottish Nat. Orch./ Martin Yates – Dutton Epoch stereo-only SACD CDLX 7322, 75:24 (Distr. by Harmonia mundi) [9/11/15] *****:

The two piano concerto came between the third and fourth symphonies of VW, and proves more interesting in this version for the two pianos plus full orchestra, arranged by Joseph Cooper. The three movements are Toccata, Romanza and Fuga chromatica. While the Two Piano Concerto was first performed in 1933, it wasn’t until 1946 that the transcription with orchestra was first heard, made in co-operation with the composer. It is a big-boned and craggy score of symphonic proportions, rather surprising since one of the pianists VW wrote it for – Harriet Cohen – had very small hands and tended to espouse small-scaled works. The movements flow into one another without breaks between, and the work’s agressive style must have seemed quite modern to 1933 audiences who had not yet heard piano concertos by Bartok and Hindemith. Cohen performed the work exclusively and wouldn’t let others play it, and it never received the attention of the composer’s nine symphonies.

The version of VW’s London Symphony usually performed and recorded today is the one from 1936, but this is the 1920 version, which was a revision of the original 1913 first performance. It was a ground-breaking work of large scale and distinctive style. There are two other SACD versions of the work, both multichannel. Richard Hickox’s version on Chandos is actually the 1913 original, so it is even ahead of this one on Dutton. Though titled “A London Symphony,” VW later opined that it would have been better to call it “a symphony by a Londoner” to show that the work was an abstract one and not programmatic.

Though the symphony in all versions is known for its opening movement, which suggests all London coming to life after dawn breaks. The Lento that follows is lovely with its muted strings. VW himself described this scherzo as a “Nocturne,” and it suggests Bloomsbury Square on a November afternoon. The symphony’s finale was described by Albert Coates as a “hunger-march.”  The river Thames seems to flow thru the entire symphony. VW suggested the end of the novel Tono-Bungay by H.G. Wells should be read in context of the ending pages of the symphony. The chimes of Big Ben are heard near the end of the symphony.

Though it’s too bad this isn’t a multichannel SACD, the clean stereo signal adapts well to a pseudo-surround playback decoder.

—John Sunier

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