Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 8; Symphony No. 9

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COMPOSERS: Vaughan Williams
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: Symphony No. 8; Symphony No. 9
PERFORMER: LPO/Bernard Haitink
CATALOGUE NO: CDC 5 57086 2
These were the last symphonies of Vaughan Williams, both composed during his eighties, and both, it is probably fair to say, unjustly neglected. They are works of impressive substance, showing a freshness of invention and all the sagacity that old age brings. Many would label them conservative, but that is less true than at first appears. The Eighth, for instance, opens with a hybrid set of variations ‘in search of a theme’, according to the composer, and its innovations go far beyond the instrumentation, which includes more percussion than usual. Indeed, the sudden juxtapositions of mood might be thought of as a rather modernist tendency. Similarly the Ninth’s refusal to countenance any indulgence in nostalgia during its by turns mysterious, mellow and bleak course (it was originally intended as a programmatic work based on Hardy) speaks of a composer who is anything but conservative. In fact, Bernard Haitink’s superb readings with the London Philharmonic Orchestra – the last disc in his 15-year odyssey through the cycle (the others are now available at mid-price) – gives me the impression of a composer whose self-certainty and originality are expressed with a certain honest grittiness that brings to mind – and I realise that the comparison seems absurd – the work of Birtwistle.

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That may be because Haitink has no axes to grind either as an over-affectionate Brit trying too hard to gild an already golden lily or as a foreigner straining over-zealously to cultivate his Anglophile tendencies. Instead – and characteristically – he approaches it as a musician should, with mind and heart generously, intelligently open. That’s what makes his version more than a strong rival to Boult’s time-honoured account on EMI – the obvious benchmark despite its relative antiquity – but also to Previn and the rest.