Vaughan Williams: The Pioneering Pilgrim – 5: The Response to War … Philharmonia Orchestra/Hickox

Vaughan Williams
A Pastoral Symphony (Symphony No.3)
Dona nobis pacem
Symphony No.4 in F minor

Lisa Milne (soprano)

Alan Opie (baritone)

London Symphony Chorus

Philharmonia Orchestra
Richard Hickox

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 6 November, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Ralph Vaughan WilliamsThe Philharmonia Orchestra and Richard Hickox ended their Vaughan Williams symphony cycle with a hit-and-miss account of the turbulent Fourth Symphony, here too clipped and pushed-along, not angry, simmering or soaring enough, short-winded in the first movement, not implacable enough in the second. Balances were awry in the first movement, trumpets and trombones obliterating their colleagues, horns failing to break through. The problem, for all the power unleashed, is that it was applied rather than unleashed from within; and such a response, whether an anticipation of war (the symphony is from 1931-34) or more to do with the composer’s personal frustrations, is crucial to the work making more than a physical impact. Although the scherzo found an improvement in rhythmic precision and the spitting-out of detail, the finale – after a tension-less transition – while spiky and driven never quite found the essential all-enveloping and welling-up fury.

Maybe the excellence of the first half had whetted expectations unable to be fulfilled. “Dona nobis pacem” (1936, wisely placed as the second work rather than the advertised first) made and left a big impression. Vaughan Williams’s setting of Walt Whitman, the scriptures and John Bright, may not quite hang together (the optimism of the words “Nation shall not lift up a sword against nation…” arrives too soon and with a jolt and, stylistically, veers more to Gerald Finzi that Vaughan Williams) but there is much that moves and stirs, whether the pleas for peace or Whitman’s words of war and reconciliation, set with vividness and humanity.

Alan OpieOf the soloists, Lisa Milne implored affectingly for peace and Alan Opie made a magnificent contribution, deeply expressive and rapturously resonant, every word and pitch made significant. The London Symphony Chorus (long associated with Richard Hickox) was typically committed and commensurate to the piece at hand. Maybe because of the use of the organ (adding a further-back perspective) and with the choir both large and standing, the heftiest moments had a depth and gleam not always possible in the Royal Festival Hall (the strings were noticeably thinner in Symphony 4, with the LSC all but gone). Something for the acousticians to ponder, maybe.

Indeed lustrous string tone was in evidence for A Pastoral Symphony, Vaughan Williams’s requiem for World War One, the fields being those of France. If Hickox seemed not so emotionally immersed in the Fourth Symphony, he most certainly was in the Third. There was a depth of feeling here that found the inner recesses of the music, which aches with sorrow without descending to bathos, and the numerous woodwind solos were played with sensitive eloquence.

Perspectives were well-judged, too, be it the distant trumpet solo of the second movement (played on a ‘natural’ instrument) or Lisa Milne’s from-afar, across-the-fields vocalising that bookends the finale, itself one of VW’s most emotionally-devastating declarations and fully revealed here, as was the weight and density, fierceness even, of the preceding scherzo-like movement.

A Pastoral Symphony is “perhaps Vaughan Williams’s greatest and most original symphony” (Michael Kennedy) – indeed – and here Hickox and the Philharmonia Orchestra substantiated this opinion.

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