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Martyn Brabbins conducts Vaughan Williams’s A London Symphony

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

Vaughan Williams
A London Symphony; Sound sleep; Orpheus with his lute; Variations for Brass Band
Elizabeth Watts, Mary Bevan (soprano), Kitty Whately (mezzo-soprano); Royal College of Music Brass Band; BBC Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
Hyperion CDA 68190

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When the late Richard Hickox recorded (for Chandos) the original 1913 score of A London Symphony, reinstating the substantial cuts made by Vaughan Williams before the work’s publication, a comprehensive picture of his revision process now seemed to be in place. Not so simple. There were in fact two published scores – the now familiar 1933 version, and the earlier, 1920 one recorded here, marking an intermediate stage in the Symphony’s evolution. While many of the changes made between this and the final score concern fairly minor details, there are also some larger, eyebrow-raising differences.

In the 1920 version the serene polyphonic writing for strings in the first movement’s introduction is mirrored by a similar, balancing passage in the finale’s epilogue. Fine as this is, its omission in the final 1933 version makes the epilogue’s process of dissolution more concise, and therefore more striking. The post-1920 removal of two superb linking passages in the slow movement is much harder to understand – especially the second of these, with its solo horn, cor anglais, clarinet, and mysteriously dissonant accompanying tremolo strings. Martyn Brabbins conducts the work with a sense of purposeful directness, likeably enhanced by the expressive warmth of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s response. 

The supporting items in this all-Vaughan Williams programme offer interest too. There are two rarely heard early orchestral song-settings, including Sound Sleep with its three solo voices, and the Variations written as a test piece for the 1957 National Brass Band Championships – with rather more imaginative results, in musical terms, than a technical brief of this kind might suggest. 

Malcolm Hayes