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Vaughan Williams: Symphonies Nos 6 & 8 etc (BBCSO/Brabbins)

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

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

Vaughan Williams
Symphonies Nos 6 & 8; England, my England* etc
*Roderick Williams (baritone); BBC Symphony Chorus; BBC Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
Hyperion CDA68396   72:38 mins

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Wonderful as it is to hear the Eighth treated with the respect it deserves, the main focus has to be on Symphony No. 6. Even against formidable competition, Martyn Brabbins impresses handsomely. Nothing is forced – the fury and the anguish, the grandeur and the desolation seem almost to speak for themselves. What’s surprising on first hearing is how the Symphony’s epic sweep is balanced with such focused clarity. Details catch the ear that tend to get lost in the general melée, while the rhythmic articulation is sharp and muscular. Of course the superb recording helps, but the microphone can’t bring out things that aren’t already there. It’s all beautifully judged, right through to the near-ideal tempo (not hurried but always mobile) for that ghostly, awestruck finale.

The Eighth is a gentler, more personable affair, but the quality of the invention is high, and again felicities of inner detail stand out without spoiling the lyrical flow. The ingeniously structured first movement makes the greatest effect, but there’s much more than colourful fun and games to the winds-only Scherzo, and the strings’s ‘Cavatina’, and even to the carnivalesque pitched-percussion-heavy ‘Toccata’. The fillers are slight, but England, my England is a reminder that, even when called on to provide a wartime morale-booster, Vaughan Williams just didn’t do crude jingoism. It isn’t great music, but it is oddly touching, even if – or, perhaps, because – it’s so very much of its time.

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Stephen Johnson