London Symphony Orchestra (Hickox) – ‘Vaughan Williams: Symphonies No.6 and No.8, Nocturne’ An SACD review by Mark Jordan

The tide has turned, and Vaughan Williams is riding the wave. Where all the mid-twentieth century experimenters once seemed so daring, and the stubborn Vaughan Williams and his modal chords seemed a relic of the past, now a huge portion of the dry leaves of academic serialism and kook-level avant-gardism have withered and fallen off the trees. Across this forest-floor detritus, old Vaughan Williams still marches on, fresher than ever. After the inevitable slump in reputation through these years and following his death in 1959, British conductors Sir Adrian Boult and Sir André Previn (who is British by choice, if not birth) checked the scoffers with solid recorded cycles of the composer’s symphonies in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. This forced non-British commentators to grudgingly accept RVW as at least one of the better “second-rate” composers. More recent years have seen fine cycles by Sir Andrew Davis, Vernon Handley, and Bryden Thomson, among the British conductors. As the tide of fashion began shifting away from academicism, however, RVW was poised to move into the mainstream, and to their eternal credit, non-British conductors such as Bernard Haitink, Leonard Slatkin, and Kees Bakels will all earn a place in music history for championing this composer outside of his home territory. I’ll unequivocally state my view, which is that Vaughan Williams will continue to rise in reputation until he is regarded as a truly first-rate composer, and one of the greatest and most visionary symphonists of all time.

This new release from Chandos has arrived at the perfect time to contribute to that process. The always warmly expressive Richard Hickox is recording what will be the first multichannel SACD cycle of the Vaughan Williams symphonies, and this release is on target, as the other releases in the cycle have been, to make his cycle one of the most important. That artistic distinction, combined with fine sound, make this release self-recommending, not only to RVW fans, but also to those who are ready to explore the musical world of England’s most visionary genius.

After the gentle poignancy of Vaughan Williams’ ‘Symphony No.5’, most listeners expected him to drift off into radiant sagehood in the 1940’s, doddering along, writing music suitable for dreaming of English landscapes. After all, he was in his seventies, and only a handful of other composers had written anything important at that age. That’s one of the reasons why his ‘Symphony No. 6 in E minor’ hit everyone in 1946 like a kick up side the head. That, and the fact that the work is designed to hit like a kick up side the head, I should add. Vaughan Williams’ ‘Sixth’ is certainly on the short list of most harrowing half-hours in the classical repertory (and if it isn’t in the repertory of your local orchestra, you should write a letter when you’re done reading this). Written in the aftermath of the Second World War, the initial reaction from most people, and from critics, too, was that it was a war symphony. Most sensational of all was the ten-minute epilogue, played at an unyielding pianissimo, which many thought a portrait of the world after nuclear apocalypse. Vaughan Williams was typically impatient with such interpretations, and testily remarked, “It never seems to occur to people that a man might just want to write a piece of music.” And of course, he was right. Nonetheless, a perceptive artist will always reflect something of the tenor of their times, and though this piece stands as a musically lucid examination of the conflict between E minor and its surrounding keys, it also stands as emblematic of the chaos of the twentieth century, or could even be seen as anticipating the exponentially growing mayhem of the twenty-first.

The first movement opens up with a simple but ingenious clash. “Cognitive dissonance” is the term that psychologists use to describe a mixed message, and it applies here both emotionally and musically. Strings and higher winds play three notes outlining the beginning of an F minor scale. But then the lower instruments crash in with a stentorian E minor chord. Taken alone, either of these would be dark but harmonious. Have the one come in under the other, though, and it is like a harmonic spark that detonates a cascade of strings, brass, and percussion. After this violent onslaught, one might hope for some relief from the second theme, but instead, the composer turns the screws tighter with a grotesquely loping passage that leads to an even darker theme. The only moment of respite in the whole symphony comes at the end of this movement, when the dark theme is briefly transformed into a radiant E major before the mists swirl up again, leading to the toweringly massive close.

Whereas the older Boult and Previn recordings of this movement are broadly paced and full of intensely entrenched playing, Hickox follows the lead of more recent recordings by Davis and Slatkin, deploying his musical forces in surgical strikes instead of a full frontal assault. But one shouldn’t think that restricts its impact. Indeed, the London Symphony’s fast, waspish attacks have plenty of weight. Granted, their more refined corporate sound keeps them from having quite as much raw edge as Andrew Davis’ Teldec recording with the BBC Symphony, but they maintain a depth of sound that the BBC orchestra cannot touch. By comparison, Bernard Haitink’s EMI recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra seems equally deft and substantial, but with a tendency to ever so slightly pull its punches. Vernon Handley’s EMI recording with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic is typically lucid, but arguably too comfortable to really be telling. Bryden Thomson is not really in his element with this work on his recording from the 1980’s, which also featured the London Symphony and was also on Chandos. Thomson seemed to respond best to the reflective and elegiac in Vaughan Williams, and his ‘Sixth’ often lacks the killer instinct. Leonard Slatkin, with the Philharmonia Orchestra on RCA, is direct and urgent, weightier than Hickox, and almost as aggressive as Davis. Above all, Slatkin writes the book on how to deliver the closing peroration of the movement, slowing down enough to let the titanic chords hit with devastating weight. It speaks well of Hickox that he almost matches Slatkin in this rhetorical passage.

The second movement starts immediately, dropping into a tense B minor, as if awaiting new onslaughts. They aren’t long in coming. The main theme is an uneasy step-by-step chromatic fragment, dogged by a nagging three-note rhythm. Soon it is harmonized by queasy parallel chords, a passage so unsettling that it can almost literally make the listener sick to his or her stomach. Then the brass arrives with a baleful theme in which every chord is harmonized in the minor. This kind of tension cannot remain unbroken for long, and soon the obsessive rhythm begins attacking, wave after wave, grimly baring its teeth, yet never breaking into any kind of release. This has proved a difficult movement in recordings over the years. The first recording ever made was by Leopold Stokowski and the New York Philharmonic in 1946. Although Stokowski is brilliant throughout much of the piece, he took this movement far too fast, never allowing it to build to the frightening heights that it can. Standouts among modern recordings include Davis, who is very visceral, albeit not inward enough; Previn, who is less punchy than Davis, but more baleful; and Slatkin, who is measured, intense, and inward. I am convinced that Hickox has trumped them all, however, in a reading of the movement that is daringly broad, yet effectively sustained. His players sculpt their lines with great character and attention, and they catch the unease of the movement like few others, building it to terrifying peaks.

The third movement gives a slight release of tension, if only through the kinetic chaos of panic. This movement brings one of Vaughan Williams’ rare flirtations with jazz when the trio of the movement features an almost sleazy tune on the saxophone, soon taken up by full orchestra. The crisis point of the whole symphony comes at the end of this movement, when the sleazy tune returns at full force in the brass, but slowed down to half-speed and harmonized in huge parallel chords the size of Stonehenge’s blocks. It is the linchpin of the finest performances – either the conductor recognizes that this is the turning point, or it goes for nothing. The best here are Previn, Davis, and Slatkin. And now Hickox joins that esteemed group by giving this passage the weight it needs. Among the other recordings, Handley, Haitink, Stokowski, and the second Boult recording simply don’t go for the jugular here, and thus, never quite “make it” as realizations of the work. I should point out that the earlier Boult recording (on Decca, currently available as licensed to a bargain label) falls into the ‘excellent’ category, however, its close, dry mono sound doesn’t exactly endear it to the listener, although I suppose it is more listenable than the muddy, boomy mono sound of Stokowski’s Columbia recording from around the same time. The only shortcoming of Hickox in this scherzo is that he doesn’t point the instrumental lines here quite as sharply as he does in the first movement.

After the big chords, the scherzo goes into a quick, chromatic meltdown, aided here in Hickox’s recording by some stinging sforzandos from the strings, who also play near the bridge to increase the hollowness of their sound. Out of this emerges the desolate finale, hushed and abstracted with pointless counterpoint. It is like a mind that has been wrecked beyond coherent functioning, that still functions anyway because it doesn’t know to stop. This musical coma state stretches from about seven or eight minutes in Stokowski’s recording (which is far too fast), to almost eleven and a half in Boult’s second recording. None of the analog recordings are ideal (Stokowski, Boult 1, Boult 2, Previn) because the difficulties of LP surface noise required the levels to be brought up for the whispered finale, and all of them lost atmosphere in the process. Among the modern digital recordings, I find Slatkin to be ideal, with an icy desolation and perfect pacing. Davis rivals Slatkin in desolation, but spins the tempo along a little quickly for my taste, as if he still had leftover adrenaline from the rest of his spiky performance. Haitink is intense in the movement, but warmer than most, and, although Hickox is broader in tempo than Haitink, he resembles the Dutch conductor’s warmth. Though an argument can be made for humanizing the movement, I am not convinced that this is the right flavor to follow up three of the most violent movements in the symphonic literature. I rather think that the uncompromising Vaughan Williams wouldn’t want his music to offer some false sense of hope where there is none. If there is a message to this piece, perhaps it is that the finale is the outcome of the violence of the preceding movements. Whether we take that symbolically or a musical abstraction, it is still potent. This movement is intensely bleak, and conductors shouldn’t let their orchestras play it with too much richness and warmth or the point is diluted. That said, Hickox sustains his slow tempo with impressive concentration.

In sum, Slatkin remains the top choice for this work, at least in terms of performance, proving that he can be a tremendous conductor when the music at hand is far enough out of the mainstream to engage his interest and not bore him. With its focused concept and swift speeds, Slatkin’s is the cycle of choice at the moment, although the cumulative impact of Hickox’s may well dislodge it from said position. Hickox gives Slatkin a good run for his money in the ‘Sixth’, joining Andrew Davis’ recording in the top triumvirate of current versions, and easily outdoing the Teldec and RCA recordings in terms of sound.

The multichannel sound of this release is reasonably spacious, for there is plenty of reverberation. Interestingly, though, the reverberation doesn’t travel a great deal out to the rear channels, so there’s not as much “wave of sound” effect as I initially thought there would be. The orchestra is put at a slight distance, which increases the boominess of the acoustic a bit, causing some inner detail to get lost in the fray. In some ways, this is isn’t a bad thing for a work that unleashing so much chaos, but on the other hand, it doesn’t help the listener find his way through the most convoluted passages. Additionally, there wasn’t a great front-to-back depth in the orchestral sound. That, combined with the relative restraint of the rear channels makes it hard to figure where the reverberation in the recording comes from, although as it was recorded in a church (All Saints, Tooting, London) there remains a possibility that the church is tall, causing reverberation above the playing area. Despite these minor cavils, it is a handsome and richly textured Direct-Stream Digital high-resolution recording, capturing the rasp of attacks with considerable color. By comparison, the Haitink recording (made in the never-friendly acoustics of EMI’s Abbey Road Studio No.1) seems a touch restricted and subdued in color. Also recorded at Abbey Road was Slatkin’s RCA recording, sounding more full-blooded than most from that venue, if a touch harsh and strident. Teldec’s recording of Davis and the BBC Symphony is too distant, and at a very low level, which works well for the last movement, but not well elsewhere. Especially noteworthy for Chandos is the improvement in sound over their recording of Bryden Thomson and the same orchestra in the same church back in the 1980’s. There the boominess of the acoustic gets the upper hand in places, and when that is combined with the inherent glassiness of early digital recordings, it can get unpleasant. The new recording triumphs.

Vaughan Williams’ ‘Symphony No. 8 in D minor’ makes for an uneasy disc mate on this release. It’s fine to couple them in order to keep the cycle from spreading over umpteen discs, but I can hardly imagine wanting to listen to these two wildly different works in one sitting! The ‘Eighth’, despite its minor key, is as affable as the ‘Sixth’ is menacing. Conversely, though, it is probably the hardest of the composer’s symphonies to grasp just because it is so different in tone. The ‘First’ is all high romantic seriousness, while the ‘Second’ is vividly and mournfully impressionistic. The ‘Third’ is eerie and pastoral, the ‘Fourth’ abrasive, and the ‘Fifth’ radiant. The ‘Seventh’ is desolate, and the ‘Ninth’ is visionary and brooding. Thus the good-natured ‘Eighth’ has all too often been dismissed as a lightweight piece, a sort of divertissement. But yet, it sticks in the memory and keeps one returning to it, until its hidden depths begin to show.

Most beguiling of all is the opening movement. RVW wasn’t merely being mischievous when he entitled it “Variazioni senza Tema” (“Variations without a Theme”). Indeed, he turns the whole ‘theme and variation’ technique on its head, because the opening theme isn’t a theme at all, it is a group of melodic fragments. He then proceeds to present seven themes (or theme groups) which all could have been the source of the fragments we heard at the beginning (and which return at the end of the movement). Perhaps a better name for this inverted process would be “Variant and Themations”. Whatever the case, the movement covers a lot of ground, and some conductors have tried to unite the movement symphonically by taking the slow parts a little quicker than normal and the quick parts a little slower. Bryden Thomson and Bernard Haitink both have notable success with the movement by handling it that way, finding the expansive, visionary side of the movement (a side which is always lurking there somewhere in any late Vaughan Williams piece). The work’s dedicatee Sir John Barbirolli, however, delighted in playing up the contrasts of the movement, keeping it structurally coherent by inserting a brief pause between each section. Vaughan Williams was reportedly pleased with that touch, but he declined to put it in the score as he was afraid that other conductors who didn’t have Barbirolli’s narrative instincts would take too long of a pause. What Barbirolli demonstrates in his early stereo recording (currently available in a Barbirolli Society release) is that the coherent sectioning of the movement simply points out that this is a different technique of symphonic development from more standard forms, but no less valid. Leonard Slatkin follows Barbirolli’s lead and doesn’t shy away from the music’s episodic character. Another great thing about Slatkin’s performance is that he captures the elusive wistfulness of the opening fragments better than anyone else. Boult, by contrast, is slower and darker, as if trying to make the movement more akin to other late Vaughan Williams pieces. Haitink’s symphonic sweep is effectively allied with the same sort of wistfulness that Slatkin captures. Hickox strikes a balance between the symphonic and the episodic, which results in a very effectively coherent movement. He doesn’t capture the elusiveness quite like Slatkin or Haitink, but he and the orchestra do delight in the work’s unusual colors.

The second movement scherzo is for winds alone. Barbirolli and Slatkin are again on the quick side, with Barbirolli playing up the mischief of the music, and Slatkin streamlining it with more of a poker-face. Thomson is also poker-faced, but at a less hurried pace. Boult is similar in pace to Thomson, but with stronger characterization. Haitink is similar to Slatkin in keeping it crisp and sleek. Hickox comes in closer to Barbirolli than anyone else, playing up the music’s wit while still keeping things moving along vigorously.

The slow movement is for the strings. Haitink takes a very broad tempo for a searchingly elegiac performance. Barbirolli, on the other hand, took a flowing tempo and had his strings sing brightly, giving the movement a less somber feel. Other recordings run the range. Slatkin is a little more toward the Barbirolli end of the spectrum, lyrical and richly singing, while Thomson and Boult lean more toward the gravity of Haitink’s approach. Hickox leans toward the elegiac, with a spacious but well-maintained tempo. His strings feature a wonderfully veiled tone that matches the introspective concept.

In the finale, RVW pulls out all sorts of tuned percussion instruments to join the rest of the orchestra for a grand, festive finale. Indeed, it becomes clear at this point that to some degree this symphony is really a concerto for orchestra, or even more apt, a concerto for composer and orchestra. In his eighties and at peace with his mortality, Vaughan Williams is enjoying himself here, composing for the sake of composing, using all sorts of tricks of the trade. Thus the finale is festive in tone (though again in the minor), and it closes things off with a joyous noise. Boult is the fastest in this movement, although Slatkin and Barbirolli aren’t far behind. Haitink and Thomson, conversely, take broader tempos, designed to bring out the latent grandeur of this festive music, and that doesn’t hurt it one bit. Hickox again proves a master of synthesis, combining the festiveness of the one approach with the grandeur of the other, making for a very satisfying close to this lovable symphony.

Again, I feel Slatkin has a slight edge over everyone else in this work, but there is no doubt that Hickox is hot on his heels, with his broader, more inclusive approach. Nor can one dismiss the wit of the original dedicatee, Sir John Barbirolli, nor the vision of Bernard Haitink or Bryden Thomson (who may well deliver the finest performance of his cycle in the ‘Eighth’). Only Boult’s EMI recording seems to fall short of the mark, as if Boult didn’t trust the composer’s sense of wit. Yet even so, it offers Boult’s typically majestic insights.

The acoustic of All Saints Church matches the ‘Eighth’ better than the ‘Sixth’, thus everything settles into place most pleasantly. The less hectic scoring of the ‘Eighth’ rings out radiantly in this acoustic, further enhancing what is already a very fine performance. As before, Slatkin and Haitink were both recorded in Abbey Road Studio No.1, and are compromised slightly thereby. The earlier Chandos recording of Thomson is one of the most successful from his cycle, despite the limitations of standard-resolution digital sound. The delightful Barbirolli recording is more for devotees than casual listeners, as its early stereo sound is fairly crude, and so is some of the playing of the Hallé Orchestra. What is incomparable, though, is the bond, the shared sense of adventure and discovery between conductor and orchestra. Our modern orchestras play much more sleekly than that scrappy band from long ago, but how often do our ensembles match them in terms of capturing the true life-blood of musical spirit? Fortunately, the London Symphony is more than just a proficient orchestra. They play with strong personality, and their performances are better for it.

A special bonus attraction on this disc is the world premiere recording of a ‘Nocturne’ for voice and orchestra which Vaughan Williams wrote in 1908, setting ‘Whispers of Heavenly Death’ by Walt Whitman, who was RVW’s favorite composer. This piece lay forgotten among the papers of a singer who had perused the score at the composer’s request and evidently never performed it. Thus the current recording was preceded by what appears to have been its world premiere. The work is not a masterpiece, but it does show Vaughan Williams stretching toward the assurance and pungent harmonic distinction of his mature style (which incidentally he did not hit until he was almost forty, making him the patron saint of all of us late-bloomers). The piece is dark and ecstatic, with Roderick Williams’ baritone richly and sonorously weaving in and out of the deeply textured string chords. The piece is a welcome find, and certainly makes an already impressive SACD that much more attractive.

The two-channel high-resolution program for this disc is impressive enough, but interestingly, it doesn’t have quite the visceral impact of the multichannel program. Often, the reverse is the case, but in this recording, engineer Ralph Couzens has not shied away from using the center channel to counteract the tendency of the rear channels to diffuse the sound. What we get is a full-blooded surround envelope that is not only inclusive, it also has more kick than the two-channel program. As this is a hybrid disc, there is also a standard-resolution stereo layer for regular CD players. For some reason, it is at a higher level than the SACD layers, so if you do any A/B comparisons, be ready for it. As a straight CD, the recording is still one of the best ones out there of these pieces, and combining that with the quality of the performances makes this a very desirable release. Texts are included in the program, along with informative notes by Vaughan Williams scholar Michael Kennedy (which is still the case with 75% of all RVW recordings!). Highly recommended.