Two highly contrasting Symphonies by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) heard in London Philharmonic Orchestra recordings derived from performances at the Royal Festival Hall. The taut, visceral and stunning Fourth is from a 2013 concert with Ryan Wigglesworth at the helm, while the inventive Eighth was given five years earlier under the LPO’s Principal Conductor Vladimir Jurowski.
Vaughan Williams wrote the Fourth between 1931 and 1934, its dark, angry and sometimes violent mood occasionally interrupted with music-hall humour came as a shock to many of its first listeners. However, the Fourth seems in some ways to evolve out of the more-threatening moods and sounds in Job: A Masque for Dancing, composed between 1927 and 1930. Ryan Wigglesworth is quicker overall than Boult in both his mono and stereo recordings, Haitink, Mitropoulos in his coruscating, live version (on Music & Arts), and is close to Paavo Berglund's timings in his studio taping with the Royal Philharmonic. Wigglesworth approaches the composer's own nifty tempos (his BBC Symphony account is now on Naxos) in all but the second movement. Wigglesworth secures very fine playing from the London Philharmonic, that stony-faced aggression making itself crushing from the off. The succeeding movement's stillness comes across in part with that same timeless and motionless effect heard in Shostakovich and with Wigglesworth looking after the line is deep-breathed in its success.
The Scherzo has wonderfully awkwardly-strutting trombones whose energy brings a nervous smile to the face. With the bridge into it (echoing Beethoven's Fifth) the finale returns us to the opening mood with its sardonic stance and which evolves into the fiery rage of the fugal epilogue. Wigglesworth ensures beginning and end come across suitably uncomfortably, and while listeners today are more used to fury and despair in music, it is not difficult to understand the profound effect the work had in 1935.
The Eighth, from between 1953 and 1956, is the product of a different age and distinct creative devices. It shows Vaughan Williams's inventiveness to be utterly undimmed. The Eighth is the shortest of his nine Symphonies. After the ferocity and bleakness of the Sixth, and the icy desolation in the Seventh, it is easy to underestimate the quality of the writing in No.8. Vaughan Williams's extensive use of tuned percussion, a movement for woodwinds and brass and one for strings, contribute to producing a work of huge variety and not a little humour and eloquence. Jurowski gets tight ensemble from his fine orchestra. The opening movement is somewhat sluggish though; other recordings inject a little more character: those by Barbirolli (splendidly captured by Mercury engineers for EMI) and Boult (Decca, also LPO) seem to have that excitement of the newly-discovered, something shared by the composer’s afore-mentioned 78s of the Fourth for HMV.
Anthony Burton in his booklet essay refers to the Eighth as “the most modest” of Vaughan Williams's nine, and apart from a brief darkening of mood in the finale (which gives way to a high-spirited and confident conclusion), this can make it a strange bedfellow for the Fourth. However, one aspect both Symphonies have in common is that, unlike the other seven, which fade away at the end, these both finish with a bang.
This release is heartily recommended, not least to anyone new to this great repertoire, especially for Wigglesworth's arresting conducting of the Fourth. The recording is very successful at allowing subtle details to be heard and is also pretty truthful to the Royal Festival Hall. Final applause on both Symphonies has been removed.