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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Symphony No. 4 in F minor (1934) [32:39]
Symphony No. 6 in E minor (1944-47) [35:27]
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Antonio Pappano
rec. live, 12 December 2019 (No 4), 15 March 2020 (No 6), Barbican Hall, London. DSD
LSO LIVE LSO0867 SACD [68:06]

It takes quite a while to plan the release of a recording, so it must be by pure coincidence – but a very pleasing coincidence – that this latest release from LSO Live appears hot on the heels of the very recent announcement that Sir Antonio Pappano is to succeed Sir Simon Rattle at the LSO. Rattle is Music Director of the orchestra but once Pappano takes over he will have the title that most of his predecessors have had. Pappano will become Chief Conductor Designate in September 2023 and twelve months later, after he has relinquished his Music Directorship at the Royal Opera House, he will formally become the LSO’s Chief Conductor.

In an introductory note, Pappano explains that both of the performances captured here took place on significant dates. The Fourth was played on the night of the 2019 British General Election and whatever your stance on the issues on which that election was fought, notably Brexit, I think we can all agree that it was an election of no little significance. The Sixth was performed on the night before the announcement of the closure of live music-making in the UK as part of the Covid restrictions. Sir Antonio comments that people somehow knew that a lockdown was imminent; what he doesn’t say is that no one had any premonition then that the restrictions on live performances would be so long-lasting and far-reaching in the UK and elsewhere.

Right to the end of his life (think of the flugelhorn and saxophones in the Ninth symphony) Vaughan Williams never lost his ability to surprise, and the gritty Sixth symphony came as a shock after the radiance of the Fifth – although perhaps it shouldn’t have done when one recalls the turbulent Fourth, to say nothing of scores such as Job and Dona nobis pacem. This performance by Pappano and the LSO has a pile-driver start, and thereafter real turbulence follows in their account of the first movement. Even when the strings present more lyrical material the deliberately gawky, lumbering accompaniment on wind and brass maintains the propulsive nature of the performance. Everything is vividly projected. The wonderful E major flowering of the string theme (6:05) glows but Pappano presents the tune without fuss or excessive sentiment and I like that; the expansive melody is hopeful and noble but not overdone. The movement finishes with a reprise of the opening which here sounds, as it should, like a cri de cœur.

Moving into the Moderato second movement, it seems to me that Pappano paces the music very well – broadly speaking, he’s close to the likes of Boult and Handley. Pappano achieves steady momentum and though he gives the music the right amount of space you always feel there’s the right sense of purpose. He also makes the dynamics tell without any unwanted exaggeration. In the extended passage of quiet, oppressive tension involving the strings, focus is always maintained until, at 5:23, we hear the first quietly menacing ‘rat-a-tat’ figures on trumpets and timpani. From here on Pappano and the LSO build the music incrementally until they reach the titanic climax (from around 7:00). When that remorseless climax is spent the desolate cor anglais solo paves the way for the Scherzo. VW called this movement a scherzo but, in reality, it contains not so much as a hint of good humour. The music is snarling and dissonant and the pin-point, trenchant playing of the LSO realises VW’s vision in an ideal way. The oily contributions of the tenor saxophone make their mark in a relentless, white-hot performance.

The recorded sound, which I’ll comment on in a little more detail later on, is a bit close, as often is the case with recordings made in the acoustic of the Barbican Hall, and I was concerned that the strange, disembodied Epilogue might sound too ‘present’. Happily, that’s not the case. Thanks to the great skill and control of the players, VWs hushed, desolate musical landscape is given the kind of withdrawn performance it needs. There has been speculation down the years that VW was portraying a post-nuclear scene, though he denied that, pointing instead to Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I think Wendy Thompson may not be too far from the mark in suggesting, in her notes, a tribute to Holst. She cites ‘Neptune' from The Planets and whilst not disagreeing, the Holstian piece that sprang even more to my mind as I listened to this performance was Egdon Heath. It’s an extraordinary movement of which Pappano and the LSO give a superb rendition. With the benefit of hindsight, we can perhaps reflect that as the symphony died away on that evening in March 2020 it was almost as if live music-making was vanishing into thin air.

The present performance of the Sixth symphony is very fine indeed but the real prize here is the scalding account of the Fourth symphony. I’ve read a few comments by people who were present at this concert, notably the Vaughan Williams biographer, Simon Heffer, which indicated that Pappano led an outstanding performance. He says in the booklet that he’d long wanted to conduct the Fourth. It seems that when he got the chance, he grasped the opportunity with both hands.

In his notes Andrew Huth puts forward the conventional view that the Fourth reflects the times in which VW composed it: “a cry of rage and pain at World War I, and the looming threat of another, possibly worse, war to come”. I’m not sure that this presents a complete view of what the symphony is ‘about’. I suppose there may have been an extent to which the music reflected the times in which it was written because no creative artist exists in a vacuum. However, as regards premonitions of World War II, VW specifically disavowed that idea, for example in a letter concerning the symphony that he wrote to a friend, Bobby Longman, in December 1937 in the course of which he said, ‘I wrote it not as a definite picture of anything external – e.g. the state of Europe – but simply because it occurred to me like this – I can’t explain why – I don’t think that sitting down and thinking about great things ever produces a great work of art…..I always live in hope, as all writers must…’ More than one commentator has suggested, plausibly, I think, that the volcanic aspect of the work may have been a way of VW venting his feelings at the increasingly poor health of his wife, Adeline. We must also not forget that, for all its choleric nature, the symphony is not devoid of humour: we find bluff humour in the scherzo. Whatever impelled the creation of the symphony, though, it remains a tumultuous, even titanic work and, as such, a great challenge to those who would perform it.

In this present performance, I was struck at once by the stunning immediacy of the music-making. Pappano and the LSO generate tension and white-hot energy from the outset and, in reality, don’t let that tension subside for the next 32 minutes or so. The playing is terrifically incisive in all sections of the orchestra, especially the brass and timpani. It seems to me that Pappano both gets the pacing of the music absolutely right and also conveys its spirit. The hushed coda is delivered with great sensitivity. By that time the music seems exhausted – or are we hearing resignation? Andrew Huth very accurately refers to the “emotional limbo” of the second movement. We hear a highly concentrated performance and the music-making has great intensity, even though for much of the time the dynamics are at a fairly modest level. The main climax, though, is immense. The Scherzo is given a thrusting, highly dynamic performance. Again, there’s great incisiveness in the playing, which is what the music demands. The second half of the movement in particular is something of a rollercoaster and the irregular rhythms make the music fundamentally unstable. Pappano handles the subdued transition to the finale expertly – how often is this symphony programmed alongside Beethoven’s Fifth, or, given the kinship between the two works on several levels, would that be too much of a good thing?

The Finale bursts upon us. In what follows we are treated to a performance of edge-of-the-seat virtuosity. VW’s music grabs the listener by the scruff of the neck and never lets go – certainly, that’s the case in this blistering performance. There’s a brief interlude of quieter music (2:48 – 4:33) but even here Pappano doesn’t allow the tension to subside; quite the reverse, in fact. The fugue (from 6:03) is potent and benefits from extremely good clarity in all sections of the LSO. The brass playing is especially exciting. Someone – I suspect it was Michael Kennedy – referred to the very end of the symphony as a “defiant slam”: that’s just how it comes across here; VW is saying, if you like, ‘take it or leave it”. From start to finish this account of the finale has extraordinary levels of energy; I suspect the players must have been drained at the end.

This disc contains a very fine account of the Sixth symphony and a performance of the Fourth that is simply outstanding. If these performances are to represent the sort of collaborations we can expect when Pappano takes over the LSO then we are in for exciting times. I’ve not heard his only previous recording for the label, a pairing of the Tenth symphonies of Andrej Panufnik and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (review) but I look forward keenly to further releases from the orchestra and their incoming chief over the coming years.

The recordings have been engineered, as usual, by The Classic Sound Ltd. Sometimes, LSO Live recordings can seem a bit too close – for which the acoustics of the Barbican Hall must be held to account – but here the results are superb. I listened to the 2.0 stereo layer of this SACD - I’m not equipped for the 5.1 multi-channel option – and I found that the sound had terrific impact and detail, ideally suited to this music. The booklet includes useful notes by Andrew Huth (Fourth symphony) and Wendy Thompson (Sixth).

This terrific disc is an impressive harbinger of the future LSO/Pappano partnership. It will certainly be in the mix for my personal selection of Recordings of the Year for 2021.

John Quinn

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