Something dark and angry had been stirring in Vaughan Williams’s music throughout the 1920s and early ’30s. Even so, nobody was quite prepared for the volcanic eruption of the Fourth Symphony in 1934. It wasn’t just the violence, the savage humour and glimpses of desolation; there was a new ferocious concentration.
The lyrical expansiveness of his London and Pastoral Symphonies seemed light years away. Answers were sought: was the Fourth Symphony a response to a world in turmoil – to a Europe once again intent on pressing the self-destruct button? In public Vaughan Williams denied it, but privately he hinted that the Symphony might be a reflection of ‘unbeautiful times’.
However, the composer insisted that he did find it beautiful. That’s the paradox: for all its delight in dissonance, its convulsive urgency, its sardonic wit, the Fourth Symphony is a thrilling, invigorating experience, an emotional and intellectual white-water ride – and one of its composer’s highest achievements.
The best recording…
Ralph Vaughan Williams (conductor)
BBC Symphony Orchestra (1937)
Naxos Historical 8.111048
Vaughan Williams was the first to admit his limitations as a conductor (‘I’ve told you before – don’t follow me!’), but under the right conditions, in his own music, he could galvanise an orchestra like no one else. That’s what happened in Abbey Road Studio 1 in October 1937.
It’s a breathtakingly fast performance – the entire Symphony is dispatched in under half an hour – but one never gets the impression that important details are being skated over. It’s remarkable how much of the music stands out in sharp relief. For sheer voltage there’s no performance like it, but the quieter passages too are riveting: the first movement’s eerily calm ending and the Andante’s strange restless processional (with its original ending) linger in the memory even after the finale has administered its brutal coup de grâce.
It’s the humour in the Scherzo and Finale that really stand out. Vaughan Williams confessed to having ‘cribbed’ the crescendo transition between the two movements from Beethoven’s Fifth. What this performance reveals is that it’s really a colossal send-up of what was then the totemic German symphony: it isn’t light that emerges from darkness, but something grotesque, strutting, ultimately destructive.
The mono sound doesn’t have the range of good modern stereo, but it’s startling how much does emerge clearly and authoritatively. Here, you feel, you’re really being told ‘how it is’.
Three more great recordings…
Richard Hickox (conductor)
London Symphony Orchestra (2003)
Chandos CHAN 9984
Sharply etched and bristling with energy, this is the modern version that comes closest to the composer’s own in terms of physical impact and sweeping momentum. Hickox misses something of Vaughan Williams’s own hectic intensity in the final Epilogo fugato, but only there, and his firm control ultimately brings its own rewards.
Hickox has a strong and compelling overview: the Symphony’s formal originality and strength comes across powerfully – as does its (for VW) unprecedented rhythmic boldness. Especially effective is the way the headlong first movement collapses into the icy calm of its coda.
Hickox then takes the Andante slightly slower than usual, thus emphasising its role in the drama. The recording is superbly immediate – make sure you’re sitting in a secure place before sampling the opening bars.
Vernon Handley (conductor)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (1990)
Warner Classics 575 3102
As pianist Alfred Brendel put it, ‘Great music is greater than it can ever be played’. There are times where Handley makes one wonder if Hickox – and perhaps even the composer – missed something in this music. The opening is suitably arresting, but when the second theme sweeps in a note of passionate lament is heard.
This grows towards the end, intensifies in the Andante and reaches its peak in the Finale’s central quiet episode – a passage that often suffers in the more ruthlessly driven kind of performance.If Hickox’s version is the most demonic, this is the most human.
There’s some beautiful solo playing too – few performances have such an expressively ‘featured’ quality. The recording serves this very well, bringing out voices and strands in a texture than can often sound like an inexorable tide of magma.
Dimitri Mitropoulos (conductor)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra (1956)
Music and Arts MACD 1214
If there is one recording above all that could convince doubters that this is a work of international rather than merely national significance, it is this. By 1956 Mitropoulos had had the Fourth in his repertoire for a decade, and it has a remarkably ‘lived in’ quality.
Power, urgency and pathos are matched by a grandeur of overall conception that make Vaughan Williams’s Fourth sound as much a homage to Beethoven as a blistering parody. (VW’s feelings about the symphonic master were, incidentally, profoundly ambiguous.)
Like the composer in 1937, Mitropoulos uses the slow movement’s original ending, but that’s a minor issue beside the noble, searing gravity he brings to this music – the real heart of the work in this performance.
Original text by Stephen Johnson