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Vaughan Williams: Symphonies Nos 3 & 4

BBC Symphony Chorus & Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins, et al (Hyperion)

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

Vaughan Williams
Symphony No. 3 ‘Pastoral’; Symphony No. 4 in F minor; Saraband ‘Helen’
Elizabeth Watts (soprano), David Philip Butt (tenor); BBC Symphony Chorus & Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
Hyperion CDA68280   80:57 mins

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Is Vaughan Williams’s Third simply an English Pastoral Symphony or a veiled requiem for the dead of Flanders Fields? A good performance can remind us that musical truth is rarely so categorical. And this is a really good performance. On one level Martyn Brabbins is superbly alert to the intricacies of the musical texture. After one hearing I got the score and listened again – so many details I’d hardly noticed before, but there they were. On another level I’ve rarely, if ever, been so aware of this symphony as a subtle but sustained emotional narrative. The soft, voluptuous beauty of the opening is gradually undermined by a sense of unease, turning to something more like grief in the finale. Is it therefore ‘about’ World War I and/or the irretrievable loss of the pre-war English pastoral idyll? Maybe, maybe not, but it’s very beautiful and very moving. Here at last is a thoroughly recommendable modern version for anyone who as yet remains un-persuaded by the Pastoral.

Brabbins’s Fourth has many of the same virtues, plus an egdy, uncomfortable intensity of its own. The slow second movement is superb – the uniquely desolate finale of No. 6 seems very close here. But it doesn’t quite match the stunning sense of shape of the Richard Hickox version, or the crash-and-burn momentum of Vaughan Williams’s own.

The recently rediscovered cantata Helen, possibly the beginnings of a larger unfulfilled project, has some beautiful writing, though the tenor solo writing doesn’t quite live up to the rest. It’s all excellently recorded.

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Stephen Johnson