Symphony No. 4 in F minor; Symphony No. 6 in E minor
London Symphony Orchestra/Antonio Pappano
LSO Live LSO0867 68:06 mins
As Antonio Pappano points out in an eloquent booklet introduction, his interpretations of Vaughan Williams’s two most combative symphonies coincided with historic evenings: the Fourth of 1934 on a tense, angry election night, the post-World-War-Two Sixth fading to nothing before the lights were switched off in concert halls around the country at 5.30pm the next afternoon. Privileged to be there on both occasions – the entire concerts were unforgettable – I wondered how the performances would hold up in a recording. There was no need to have worried: they’re both electrifying, and they sound absolutely magnificent.
Too much so in the case of the Fourth? The dissonances can take a bonier, spikier approach. But note how often Vaughan Williams writes ‘cantabile’, ‘espressivo’ and ‘appassionato’; in the score, often for themes where you wouldn’t expect such qualities. Pappano makes sure the work sings as often as it can; only the first violins in the slow movement are pointedly deadened. This is a terrible beauty, energetic, Satanic, utterly spellbinding, keeping enough in reserve to make the biggest climaxes truly shattering. And there’s a very special quality to the muted, divided strings as they head to the 14-part chord that ends the first movement. Special, too, are the wind solos – an unearthly oboe (performed by Juliana Koch) and a calm flute (performed by Gareth Davies) on the cusp of silence.
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The opening bars of this Sixth, a cry of anguish that’s also passionate bel canto song, promises the very best recording of the work. You might need a break between the two symphonies, but undeniably the apocalyptic vision continues; the relatively serene Fifth comes between, of course, and makes for a magnificent trilogy in concert – maybe Pappano can try that out when he takes over from Simon Rattle as the LSO’s principal conductor in the 2023-24 season, excellent news which has just recently been announced by the orchestra. Pappano makes it clear that the great air on a G string which calmly emerges towards the end of the first movement doesn’t come out of nowhere; its melodic contours are well delineated in the hurly-burly earlier. The tension of threatened destruction in the tattoos of the ensuing Moderato is palpable; we felt the terror in the hall and it leaps out on this recording too.
Focused mania in the nasty scherzo is perfectly gauged – properly non-human work from tenor saxophonist Bradley Grant here – and there’s still beauty to be found in the lunar landscape of the Epilogue, never rising above pianissimo, sometimes offering the ghost of a song.
You could have heard a pin drop in the sparsely populated Barbican; the oddly alive background quiet of the recording does not lie. Vaughan Williams must have known Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony and its bleak, unyielding Passacaglia when he composed this; but he provides a masterpiece of equal stature in a different symphonic progress. Rostropovich’s live performance of the Shostakovich with the LSO is one of the great recordings; now Pappano’s Vaughan William joins it.
There really are stunning times ahead for the London Symphony Orchestra and Antonio Pappano, no doubt about it.