The Banks of Green Willow
Ralph Vaughan Williams
A London Symphony (Symphony No.2) – Original 1913 Version
London Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: April 2001
CD No: CHANDOS
Duration: 68 minutes
I can’t immediately think of anything more enticing, more mouth-watering, than the opportunity to hear VW’s A London Symphony in its first version. What a good idea to include the lovely Butterworth – his Idyll and the original London Symphony were written in 1913, the idea for the latter was Butterworth’s; when Butterworth was killed in action, in World War One, VW added a memorial dedication.
The Butterworth preludes VW’s portrayal of the London he knew, a flowing and sensitive rendition; one hears, with gratitude, that Hickox has antiphonal violins – absolutely right for both pieces; Chandos’s vivid engineering – warm, detailed and glowing – ensures that the two sections’ dialogue is transparent and meaningful. For all Green Willow’s folksy pastoral, the reflective closing bars suggest Butterworth knew Fate would deal him cruelly.
A London Symphony in its initial form, in this performance, lasts 61 minutes. I’ve no need to give chapter and verse as to its history because Stephen Connock’s and Michael Kennedy’s notes are so informative. Writing as someone who loves Vaughan Williams’s music – its melodic breadth, tangible atmosphere, fantastic scoring and humanity – I am fascinated by VW’s initial conception and hugely grateful for this opportunity to hear it.
The familiar text – the one every conductor is obliged to play – of this powerful and evocative score is actually VW’s third revision. I’m pleased to have got through the first movement, having not noticed anything different, to read Connock confirming that it was never revised. What I do note though is Hickox’s spacious, magical slow introduction, the urgent bustle of the allegro, his slowing for, and touching delivery of, the passage from 10’55” – antiphonal violins essential here – and his attention to detail in this immaculately prepared reading, the side drum accent at 14’48” for example. Such standards are mandatory – VW’s orchestration, the suggestiveness of the music, demands this – and because the original score has been made available only for this recording.
VW’s main concern over ’London’ was its length. Cuts in the remaining three movements were made with each revision. The slow one now has its full refrains and extensions – VW aficionados will know those that remained in the 1920 revision, the one used by Eugene Goossens in his 1941 Cincinnati Symphony recording (now on Biddulph WHL 016).
From 5’44” in the brilliantly spectral nocturne of a scherzo is a four-minute section that VW deleted, its loss much regretted by Bax who thought it a ’strange and fascinating cacophony’; it does indeed suggest something shadowy away from the bright lights. VW didn’t shy-away from portraying the less salubrious aspects of London; nor in expressing social comment as the bitter outburst opening the finale testifies. This ultimate movement’s excised sections include, from 4’22”, some very anguished expression that presages the painful climax, and, from 6’42”, a reflective benediction of wondrous beauty and human sentiment.
After nearly 90 years we have, effectively, a first performance – a superb one, Hickox giving his all, the LSO in tremendous form – and something concrete with which to contemplate whether VW did the right thing by cutting. It’s all relative and arguable. What must surely be beyond question is that anybody interested (however remotely) in this composer will want to hear what VW decided we should not. We are the richer for this release.