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Ralph Vaughan Williams: Sixth Symphony (Hyperion/ICA Classics)

As shattering as any work of its era

Artillery Row


The English composer’s fifth symphony, like Dmitri Shostakovich’s seventh, was a musical turning point in the Second World War. Both exuded confidence in the ultimate victory of good over evil, offering a strategic boost to Allied confidence in the critical years of 1942-3. The Shostakovich symphony had universal impact; Vaughan Williams was of primarily English importance.

Five years passed before he brought forth another symphony and the change in tone is extreme. Writing in the privations of post-War austerity, when there was not enough to eat or heat, the national composer pushed the brass core of his orchestra to every known excess, before signing off with an epilogue of unequalled bleakness. At 75 he may have feared this would be his own epitaph, but this was not an artist who sweetened the pill or offered placebos. VW told it as it was. The sixth symphony, when done well, is as shattering as any work of its era.

It’s intriguing, mostly convincing and brutally well played

Two recordings have arrived simultaneously, separated by half a century but from the same orchestra, the BBC Symphony. The more recent, conducted by Martin Brabbins, betrays in the phrasing of its second movement a familiarity with the later works of Shostakovich, infusing the English soil with Russian toil and tears. It’s intriguing, mostly convincing and brutally well played by the brass and percussion.

It seems almost unfair to hear it beside a newly-released 1972 Proms performance by Sir Adrian Boult, who gave the premiere under the composer’s unwavering gaze in April 1948. Boult draws on no external references. There is nothing Soviet in the second music or jazzy in the third. This is an organic English statement, rooted in soil, struggle and phlegmatic resilience. A new book, by Nigel Simeone, details the symbiotic development of this interpretation. Vaughan Williams thought Boult was too fast on premiere, but then speeded up his own metronome mark in the published score. There were 200 performances within two years, more than for any English symphony since Elgar’s. Boult gave national premieres in Paris and Rome. His 1972 concert is quicker than Brabbins and yet more measured, assured in his mastery. Brabbis augments his fine performance with an excellent account of the eighth symphony. Boult delivers a magisterial fifth. I need to have both.

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