Sir Mark Elder conducts Vaughan Williams’s Symphonies Nos 4 & 6 with the Hallé orchestra

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COMPOSERS: Vaughan Williams
ALBUM TITLE: Vaughan Williams
WORKS: Symphonies Nos 4 & 6
PERFORMER: Hallé/Mark Elder


Vaughan Williams’s ferocious Fourth Symphony was first performed in 1935, four years before the outbreak of World WarII. The stormy Sixth was completed two years after the War. Whether or not Vaughan Williams conceived these symphonies as ‘tracts for troubled times’, they certainly sound like that now. The urgency, the mixture of anguish, violence and desolation feels as relevant today as it ever did.

Mark Elder doesn’t try to force the point. Nothing is over-hyped or over-driven – in fact there are times when he seems to have deliberately opted for a less sensational approach. The breathtaking hushed Epilogue of the Sixth Symphony, for example, is taken at a relatively lively, flowing tempo – nearer to the original metronome marking than to the composer’s later recorded thoughts. It works, though.

Other conductors may have gone more consistently for the burn, but Elder’s versions make one question the wisdom of that kind of approach. It’s the power behind it all that’s so stirring. Elder builds his climaxes carefully, and judges their relative effect with a sculptural objectivity that enhances rather than lessens the total impression – well, they do say that controlled fury is the most dangerous emotion of all. The sense of long line is superb, the detailed phrasing telling, especially in the quieter, more intimate passages. (There are plenty of those, even in the Fourth Symphony.)

What moved me most, though, was the sense of craggy dignity conveyed by both symphonies. This above all is what prevents them from coming across as onslaughts of pure pessimism. The playing – as usual with Elder’s Hallé – is outstanding, technically and expressively.

Stephen Johnson


Listen to an excerpt from this recording here.