Philharmonia Orchestra/Hickox … Vaughan Williams: The Pioneering Pilgrim – 2: Colour and Landscape (Symphony 8 … The Lark Ascending … A London Symphony)

Vaughan Williams
Symphony No.8 in D minor
The Lark Ascending
A London Symphony (Symphony No.2) [Original Version]

Anthony Marwood (violin)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Richard Hickox

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 31 May, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Ralph Vaughan WilliamsSymphony No.8 provided the “colour” element. The first movement of this underestimated masterpiece is one of Vaughan Williams’s greatest achievements, both in invention and form (a fantasia-like piece of variations without a theme). There follows a scherzo for wind and brass, a ‘Cavatina’ that features the strings, and a ‘Toccata’ finale that finds the composer (83 when the symphony was completed in 1955) further exploring the possibilities of the symphony orchestra, not least in the percussion section. 2008 should be a good year for VW8 – there is a performance at the BBC Proms (Hallé/Mark Elder) and Vladimir Jurowski opens the London Philharmonic’s 2008-09 Season with it.

This Philharmonia account betrayed the music’s relatively unfamiliarity to orchestral musicians (maybe last played by this Orchestra in 1991 for an outstanding recording of it with Leonard Slatkin – his VW cycle for RCA demanding re-issue); there were a few hesitant moments and Richard Hickox pushed all four movements along just enough to deny the composer his full expression and – indeed – passion; there’s a great deal under the surface of this score that wasn’t fully brought out. Nevertheless, the mystical aspects of the first movement were attended to, so too its volatile changes of mood, and the scherzo had a Stravinsky-like edge that was intriguing. Initially the flow that Hickox brought to the ‘Cavatina’ appeared short of breath, but greater depth and eloquence were unearthed as the movement progressed. The finale, here somewhat rampaged through, was certainly festive – the gongs and “all the ‘phones and ‘spiels known to the composer” being vivid, well-balanced and in good tune with the rest of the orchestra.

Anthony MarwoodSomething special happened in The Lark Ascending. Rarely can an auditorium as large as the Royal Festival Hall have seemed both without boundaries and also so pinpoint-accurate. Anthony Marwood brought sweet tone and lyrical freedom to the exposed violin solos, immediately suggestive of liberty and excursion as well as profound contemplation. The unbearable poignancy of this music and its underlying emotion were compelling – the orchestra caught up in the rarefied atmosphere – the folksong-episode seamlessly integrated, Marwood holding complete attention in his unaccompanied ‘into the distance’ envoi, a long silence tellingly observed before applause.

The magic continued with A London Symphony. Given that Vaughan Williams was very clear in his objectives to revise the work (which he did several times until satisfaction was reached in 1936), it could be argued that the Philharmonia should have played the composer’s final thoughts: “The 1936 score represents the symphony as Vaughan Williams wanted it to exist for posterity” (Michael Kennedy). But, Richard Hickox and the Original Version of A London Symphony seem mutually exclusive. Is he the only conductor ‘allowed’ to perform it? His LSO recording for Chandos (issued in 2001) was followed by two concert-performances of it in London prior to this RFH one. It would be interesting to hear Vernon Handley and Slatkin interpret it, for example. All this said, Hickox and the Philharmonia Orchestra gave a quite remarkable account of it.

All of VW’s revisions were just, be they cuts or changes of orchestration. Of course being able to hear suppressed material, certainly when excised from such a superb piece as A London Symphony, is a mouth-watering prospect. But being able to do so is no longer a novelty (except to first-time listeners of course).

Richard Hickox. Photograph: Opera AustraliaAny doubts were unequivocally swept aside by Hickox and the Philharmonia. They made such a strong case for the Original (first heard in March 1914) that the pages that VW removed seemed more integral than hitherto. The final revision must hold sway, but what absorbed in this account was that the ‘older’ VW seems to have ‘rebelled’ against the Impressionistic aspects of his original (which, anyway, needed to be reconstructed from the orchestral parts, the manuscript lost, before Adrian Boult could conduct the second performance in 1918 – Geoffrey Toye had been responsible for the first one – so maybe what we can now hear had already been tinkered with by the composer) and he seems to have also questioned its ‘Mahlerian’ scale (some 15 to 20 minutes of music were removed). Certainly his revisions really tightened the last three movements (the first was never altered) while also losing some ideas that perhaps never really belonged, however entrancing they may be.

This performance, superbly played, had a concentration, atmosphere, sensitivity and energy that sustained the (here) 60 minutes’ playing-time (decisively shorter than Hickox’s previous live accounts and more in-keeping with the recording) and absolutely convincing in capturing the many picturesque aspects of the score and, more importantly, the wonderment of a city’s diversity and also the composer’s socially-aware revealing of London’s bleaker side.

Hickox is devoted to the Original Version and here dug deep into its power and beauty, taking the Philharmonia Orchestra with him for a truly revealing and potent performance that was spellbinding and was, once again, greeted by sustained silence as the music receded into the mists from which it came.

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