Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 4; Symphony No. 8*

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Vaughan Williams
LABELS: LPO
WORKS: Symphony No. 4; Symphony No. 8*
PERFORMER: London Philharmonic Orchestra/Ryan Wigglesworth, *Vladimir Jurowski
CATALOGUE NO: LPO-0082

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In a back-handed way, it says something about Vaughan Williams’s range as a composer that two of his symphonies, played by the same fine orchestra in the same hall, can fare so differently in the hands of two different conductors. Ryan Wigglesworth’s approach to the tumultuous Fourth is detached seemingly to the point of coldness: the expressive reins are kept ultra-tight, with ruthlessly fast tempos in the quick movements, drawing virtuoso brilliance from the LPO in an artistically miscued cause. The result replaces the music’s strange brand of angry beauty with little more than a high-speed print-out of a performance, with far too little of the Symphony’s breadth and power allowed to come across.

Vladimir Jurowski’s Eighth at once restores one’s faith in the art of conducting. He too keeps sonority and expression taut, yet in a way that gives the orchestra time to play. They respond superbly, alighting on the music’s idiom – the 80-year-old Vaughan Williams’s wryly imaginative take on his own earlier style – with unerring touch and precision. Scored for wind instruments only, the Scherzo alla Marcia second movement has a dry Shostakovich-like manner demanding playing of much deftness, which it gets; and the strings-only ‘Cavatina’ third movement is beautifully expressive, with a vein of expansiveness that nonetheless has no fat on the notes. The sound of these live recordings, made the Royal Festival Hall’s over-cool acoustic, manages to be both clear and pleasurable.

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Malcolm Hayes