Vaughan Williams – Symphonies nos. 4 & 8

Featured recording: Vaughan Williams – Symphonies nos. 4 & 8 (London Philharmonic Orchestra)
vaughan-williams-4-8

Two very different Vaughan Williams symphonies presented in live recordings by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, with the angry, resentful Fourth conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth and the seraphic Eighth under the direction of the orchestra’s chief conductor Vladimir Jurowski

What’s the music like?

Of all his nine symphonies, the Fourth, completed in 1935, is the one that sounds least like Vaughan Williams’ work. If you didn’t know the composer, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a wartime Russian work. Such is the explosion of anger at the start, the ongoing the desolation in the slow movement, the very notion of VW being a ‘green and pleasant land’ composer is thrown right out of the water.

The Eighth Symphony of 1955 is much more amiable in mood. It is not well known among the composer’s output but there are some lovely sonorities here, such as the beautiful textures at the start, where Vaughan Williams harnesses a number of percussion instruments. Celesta and vibraphone blend beautifully to make music that sounds as if it originated a lot further east than the North Sea! The large percussion section also includes three tuned gongs. The middle two movements dispense with these instruments – the third becoming a gorgeous romance for strings – while the closing minutes are full of joyous music.

Does it all work?

This is a disc of two halves. The Symphony no.4 is given a strong performance but feels rushed at times, especially in the fourth movement, where Ryan Wigglesworth zips through a lot of the arguments so fast that they sound just a bit perfunctory.

That said, the fall-out at the end of the first movement makes quite an impact, the coda sounding truly desolate, while the second movement Scherzo is spot on, thanks to a superb bassoon contribution.

In contrast the Eighth Symphony receives an affectionate performance under the direction of Vladimir Jurowski, enjoying the use of the percussion at the start, mysterious yet rather exotic too. The Cavatina is the emotional centre of this piece, ending with a lovely cello solo that rises through the layers at the end. From this point the last movement Toccata is a joyous celebration, sounding English in its folksy tunes but again enjoying the shimmering sounds the tuned percussion have to offer.

Is it recommended?

Jurowski’s performance of the Eighth is recommended without reservation, a beautifully constructed performance that enjoys the unusual orchestral colours but which is keenly emotive too. The recording from London’s Royal Festival Hall is excellent.

Wigglesworth’s Fourth – though well played – is good but not so fine that it displaces the formidable competition among its rivals. Recordings conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, Vernon Handley and Bernard Haitink are all preferable in this respect.

Listen on Spotify

You can judge for yourself by hearing the album on Spotify here:

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