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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS
Symphony No. 2, A London Symphony (1913, rev. 1933-4) [46:01]
Concerto in A minor for Oboe and Strings (1942-3)* [19:16]
Stéphane Rancourt (oboe)*
Hallé/Sir Mark Elder
rec. *23 June 2010, BBC Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester;
live, 14 October 2010, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
HALLÉ CD HLL 7529 [65:56]
It’s a little surprising that we don’t hear the Oboe Concerto
by Vaughan Williams more often, especially since the repertoire
is not exactly over-endowed with really good oboe concertos
from the twentieth century. This new version from the Hallé
is particularly welcome. The excellent soloist is the orchestra’s
principal, Stéphane Rancourt. It’s a pity there’s no biographical
information about him in the booklet so it’s worth saying that
he is French-Canadian, born in Quebec in 1967. From 1995 to
2003 he occupied the principal’s chair with the Royal Scottish
National Orchestra before moving to Manchester. This isn’t the
first time he’s recorded a British oboe concerto; while with
the RSNO he recorded the one by Alan Rawsthorne (review).
The Rawsthorne, which dates from 1947 is a near contemporary
of the Vaughan Williams piece and a factor common to both is
that the accompaniment is scored for string orchestra.
Michael Kennedy says in his characteristically good notes –
is there a more authoritative writer on this composer? – that
RVW incorporated into the Oboe Concerto some sketch material
that he’d considered using in the scherzo of the Fifth Symphony.
That seems to me to be highly relevant because though I don’t
know where in the concerto that material occurs much of the
piece seems to share the spirit of that lovely symphony. It
is cast in three movements, the first of which is wistful for
much of the time though there is a perky episode (beginning
at 2:10), which Rancourt and his colleagues deliver with a nice
spring. They’re very persuasive too in the more lyrical, pensive
music that constitutes the main element in this opening movement.
The short second movement, a Minuet and Musette, is expertly
enunciated by the soloist. The finale is almost as long as the
preceding two movements combined. It contains the most complex
music in the work and also makes the greatest demands in terms
of the soloist’s virtuosity. A good deal of the music is agile
in nature though there is some more lyrical material. Rancourt
is equally impressive in either vein. He and his Hallé colleagues
make an excellent case for this engaging work and I enjoyed
the performance very much indeed.
The concerto is a studio recording whereas the symphony was
recorded live in the orchestra’s Bridgewater Hall home. I should
reassure readers that I wasn’t aware of any audience noise,
whether listening through loudspeakers or headphones. Sir Mark
presents the familiar score, as published in 1936 after RVW
had revised it several times between 1918 and 1934, rather than
the 1913 original score, which was the subject of a revelatory
recording by the late Richard Hickox in 2000 (review).
I’m glad that Elder has stuck with RVW’s published score. While
the Hickox recording of the original was indeed revelatory it
demonstrated that the composer was absolutely right to make
the revisions, even at the price of excising some good music.
The published version is so much tauter.
In this new performance the hushed, slow and suspenseful opening
is done most sensitively. Indeed, the music begins almost imperceptibly,
as it should. This sets the tone for a reading that will be
high on atmosphere. The soft opening makes the start of the
allegro, as the city bursts into teeming life, all the more
exciting. The main body of the movement is bustling and lively
and RVW’s colourful orchestration is vividly delivered. Elder’s
reading has a fine sweep to it but all the detail is well observed
The wonderful slow movement opens hauntingly with the cor anglais
solo heard against a daringly hushed orchestral background.
As the movement unfolds this is but the first of a series of
exquisite solos – the horn, trumpet, viola and clarinet all
have their moments of distinction. Michael Kennedy tells us
that the composer likened this movement to ‘Bloomsbury Square
on a November afternoon’. The way Elder and his players sensitively
touch in the orchestral colours makes it the aural equivalent
of an impressionist painting: the playing in this movement is
extremely refined. Not everything is pastel shaded, however;
the climax (from 7:14) is ardent, though after that passion
is spent the Hallé achieves a most poetic conclusion.
The playing in the scherzo is gossamer light at the start and
for much of its duration though the more robust passages are
played with suitable vigour. The great cry with which the finale
opens is as arresting as RVW surely intended and the slow march
that follows is put across with gravitas. Mr Kennedy suggests
that in the finale the composer was depicting some elements
of the darker side of London and there are certainly some disturbing
undercurrents. The towering climax is built up superbly and
its final statement, emphasised by a huge stroke on the gong,
is very impressive indeed. No less impressive are the concluding
pages. The subdued Westminster Chimes are heard as if recollected
from the distant past. The epilogue, with its depiction of the
Thames, is wonderfully atmospheric as RVW’s colourful and highly
imaginative evocation of Edwardian London recedes into the distance.
I love all the Vaughan Williams symphonies: each has its own
character and makes its own musical statement. However, the
one for which I have the greatest affection is this one.
I’ve heard several fine recordings of it over the years, especially
those by Boult,
My favourite of all is the wonderfully vibrant and affectionate
account recorded also in Manchester – but in the Free Trade
Hall – by the Hallé under Sir John Barbirolli in December 1957
The modern day Hallé once again has a chief conductor who excels
in and clearly loves English music. Fifty-three years later
this partnership has produced a version of the ‘London Symphony’
that matches the achievement of ‘Glorious John’ in this work.
However, Sir Mark Elder’s version obviously has the benefit
of modern digital treatment and the recorded sound for both
works is excellent.
This disc continues the rich vein of recordings of English music
by Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé. Long may they continue!
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