Though both of these symphonies were considered by the composer to be completely abstract music, audiences who found the Sixth a favorite after its premiere in l948 argued about the possibility of it being another programmatic “war symphony.” One cause of that suspicion might be that at this time Vaughan Williams had begun to write scores for films. The second movement has a three-note theme on trumpets and drums which keeps repeating endlessly and which seems to be a horrible threat getting closer and closer; it would fit well for a horror film. The fourth movement, an Epilogue, is heard as a pianissimo impression of an earth ravaged by atomic warfare. Both the opening movement and the Scherzo sport some jazzy-sounding sections. But it is understandable that the symphony seems to be about some sort of struggle or drama.
The short Nocturne is a very early VW work, a setting of a Walt Whitman poem, with some already quite atmospheric sounds. The Eighth Symphony has some interesting orchestrations. The vibraphone has a major theme in the first movement, the scherzo is scored only for woodwinds, and in the finale VW asks for “all the available hitting instruments which can make definite notes.” That’s what we get, and it’s an audiophile feast. After a rather insecure opening, the movement’s joyful slant becomes apparent, and its variety of percussive sounds – including tuned gongs – provide a rousing close to the half-hour-length symphony. The detailed clarity of the SACD reproduction is ideal for appreciation of the subtleties of VW’s often impressionistic writing.
– John Sunier