LSO/Hickox – VW’s A London Symphony (Original Version)

Vaughan Williams
Norfolk Rhapsody No.2
Piano Concerto in G
Vaughan Williams
A London Symphony (Symphony No.2) [Original Version]

Andreas Haefliger (piano)

London Symphony Orchestra
Richard Hickox

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 4 November, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

This season’s concert-going promises few more intriguing prospects than the first performance, in nearly 90 years, of the original version of Vaughan Williams’s A London Symphony. Revised on several occasions between 1918 and 1933, the piece became the battleground over which the composer refined his conception of symphonic form – as well as the large-scale work in which his mature idiom most clearly takes shape. Having recently recorded this version to impressive effect (Chandos CHAN 9902), it was right that Richard Hickox and the LSO be able to present it in public – appropriately at this year’s Royal Concert in aid of the Musicians Benevolent Fund.

That said, the first half of the evening was less than propitious. Not that the performance of the Norfolk Rhapsody No.2 (last heard publicly in 1907) was disappointing, but the piece itself makes rather tentative play with its three folk-songs: only taking on deeper resonance in the rapt coda – which, given that two missing pages of the autograph had to be specially reconstructed by Stephen Hogger, may not be Vaughan Williams’s music as such! No match, then, for the – admittedly heavily revised – Norfolk Rhapsody No.1 and In the Fen Country, but welcome for its shedding light on the composer at a formative stage in his career.

Given that Vaughan Williams was to undertake a brief but concentrated period of study with Ravel within the next two years, it made sense to include a piece by the latter. Sadly, this account of the Piano Concerto in G was no more than adequate – barely that in a fidgety and poorly co-ordinated first movement. The central Adagio went better, with some poetic cor anglais from the dependable Christine Pendrill, but Andreas Haefliger’s opening soliloquy was tense and uneven in tone. The Presto had dash and sparkle, but little of the requisite nervous energy in this the finale of Ravel’s last major work.

Happily, there were to be no such reservations in A London Symphony. At 65 minutes, this was an expansive performance of – in this version – a richly panoramic conception, but Hickox justified the time it took to unfold. Unaltered after the various revisions, the first movement was kept on a relaxed but attentive rein – lacking nothing in ’street-life’ bustle, but maintaining that serenity which the evocative introduction and affecting central episode so tellingly emphasise. The Lento becomes a sizeable tone poem in itself – the passages of subtly varied repetition opening-out the music’s expressive depth, and with little or no sense of padding. The central climax falls away here in an aftermath of spine-tingling pathos: one excision whose restoration future interpreters should seriously consider as being mandatory.

It was a mark of the persuasiveness of this account that the Scherzo’s lengthy second Trio, whose Impressionist harmonies Vaughan Williams came to view disparagingly after 1918, melded naturally into the movements overall flow – reinforcing the change of mood when the subdued coda is reached, and preparing more fittingly for the finale’s anguished opening. Itself nearly 20 minutes, this became more than ever the symphony’s culmination – and, if certain ’additional’ passages staunch rather than aid the build-up to the main climax, the latter felt the absolute focal point of the entire work. It is easy, with hindsight, to see this music as a prescient response to the catastrophe about to befall Europe: yet heard in its original context, it felt more the confronting of an emotional and artistic crisis; one which the extended epilogue, with its transformation of the harmonic premise from the very opening, leaves us in no doubt has been overcome. Gustav Holst’s affirmative words to the composer after the premiere should surely be taken in this spirit.

In a live context, Hickox has often been unsettled, even cautious in approach. Not here – as, while the performance couldn’t hope to be so note-perfect as the recording, the sense of an interpretation evolving organically in real-time was palpably and movingly conveyed. I would urge the orchestra to set aside any logistical obstacles, and issue it (despite bronchial audience members!) on the LSO Live label. It would make a powerful case for accepting the original version of A London Symphony into the repertoire – where it might well belong.

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