VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 3 “Pastoral”; Symphony No. 4 in F minor; Saraband ‘Helen’ – Elizabeth Watts, soprano/ David Butt Philip, tenor/ BBC Symphony Chorus/ BBC Symphony Orchestra/ Martyn Brabbins – Hyperion CDA68280, 80:57 (1/3/20) [Distr. Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:
The Third Symphony (1922) of Ralph Vaughan Williams, perhaps his least-performed major opus, seems constructed in a series of paradoxes, including the fact that Constant Lambert called it “one of the landmarks in modern music.” Ostensibly, the work bears a superficial, surface serenity we find in The Lark Ascending (1914; premiere 1921), with its transcendentalist sensibility. Yet the end of WW I looms over the music, a modality of subterranean anxiety and sense of mortality, especially in the manner in which the first movement Molto moderato eludes easy, melodic content. Studies with Maurice Ravel may well imbue the music’s shifting landscape, perhaps that of Flanders after the ravages of war. Brabbins and the BBC exploit the vast, open sounds of cellos, basses, and divided string parts and shifting harmonic bases. The washes of sound erupt dynamically only momentarily, the horn part and suspended strings eventually yielding to the sound of the English horn.
A solo French horn announces the second movement Lento moderato, with once more shifting harmonies to oboe, clarinet, solo viola, and flute. The natural trumpet and the natural horn, respectively, enjoy a cadenza. The trumpet’s F (tuned more to the E-flat) seems to invoke a sad, military echo, the sense of the generation described by Robert Graves in Goodbye to All That. Certainly, any of the War poems of Wilfred Owen would suffice. Nature passes a grim hand above the quietude, an eerie peace that might herald that astonishing, apocalyptic scene in the Abel Gance J’Accuse. The third movement, Moderato pesante, proffers an earthy dance, with a trumpet folk tune played by the trumpet as its secondary motif. The huge grumblings in the bass find their counter in the flute and harp, leaving us perplexed as to the emotional context of this heavily rustic, anguished and even contrapuntal music. The coda, Presto, reduces the number of strings with music of national character. This music fades away to make room for a massive last movement, Lento, which opens with a wordless vocalise for solo soprano. Echoes of Nielsen? The movement proceeds in the manner of a meditation, assembling its melodic parts as it moves forward. The soft drum roll yields to a harp, the solo soon supported by ostinatos from muted violins. The texture manages to achieve an illumined presence, a kind of apotheosis. The beauty of the melodic line derives from its modal archaism, much like the Tallis Fantasia. But this music retains its own aura, impressionistic and quietly radical, a loveliness invaded by the sinister aspects of human nature but somehow spiritually confident.
“I don’t know whether I like it, but it’s what I meant,” served as the composer’s terse reply to those who questioned the emotiona1 ferocity of the Symphony No. 4 in F minor (1934). The contour of the work – much derived from the Beethoven “Fate” Symphony No. 5 – seems to exploit masses of sound that congeal and subsequently break apart. One of its most potent realizations, in concert and on disc, came from Dimitri Mitropoulos, whose grand scheme in the face of nihilistic energies, set the bar for further performances. Perhaps motivated by the emotional shards of WW I or the horrible tensions anticipating WW II, the music assumes an unapologetic, feral momentum that springs forward like Blake’s “Tyger.”
The first movement Allegro begins with a clash in semitones, ff, the BBC brass opulent and angry, delivering two themes which dominate the whole composition. Even as the music screeches and howls, Vaughan Williams finds room for polyphonic treatment. The four, rising chords do become emblematic of Beethoven, with periods of relative repose, like this movement’s pp coda. This extended coda, modal in character, bears a kind of hymnal sensibility, a kind of requiem for the age.
Four chords once more enter, here to invoke the extended Andante moderato, which conveys its own glum pessimism. The BBC strings make this music sound like Shostakovich. When the texture thins, the oboe offers some plaintive figures, both melodic and obsessive. Oboe and horn extend the threnody. The processional anguish leads to a solo flute cadenza that will provide a transition to the Scherzo: Allegro molto. This quirky, fleet movement takes motifs from the two preceding movements to subject them to fugato permutations. The sense of clashing rocks permeates the choirs of the orchestra, leading to the trio, 0the brass stretto almost reminiscent of the antique sound in Gabrieli. At the da capo, a long crescendo on a pedal point will invoke the cadence of movement two, Obsessive and massive, the Finale con epipogo fugato carries a demented, cantering impulse that cannot free itself, at least not in the way Beethoven transfigures his tragic spirit in the Fifth. The grinding power of layered polyphony sinks the music under a terrible weight, and only the striking flow in the strings prevents the music from wallowing, as does the music of Busoni, in its own intellection. The close of the work echoes its opening, the snake’s having devoured its own tail.
Martyn Brabbins closes his incursion into the world of Vaughan Williams with a bucolic, soft piece, his own reconstruction of Helen, a 1913-14 work the composer meant for a theatrical production on Helen of Troy, Marlowe’s “face that launched a thousand ships.” A cantata that delays its vocal part for three of its nine minutes, this music complements the pleasant air of The Lark Ascending. The Saraband element lies in its triple time, supported by a hint of its Iberian origins. Brabbins has both completed the score and orchestrated it, the work’s having been abandoned in the throes of the London Symphony (No. 2) and the outbreak of WW I. Often, the lush combination of instruments, choir, and baritone invoke the 1938 Serenade to Music, for Vaughan Williams, like Schubert, never ceased paying homage to his Muse.