In the four-and-a-half decades since André Previn and Sir Adrian Boult recorded Vaughan Williams Symphony cycles back to back, a group of his bite-sized ruminations has achieved unprecedented popularity (albeit co-opted into a narrower vision of national identity than that favoured by the composer). The Symphonies have scarcely been ignored yet it is perhaps only now that we seem prepared to give them the attention they deserve. There are series currently on the go from Sir Mark Elder and Andrew Manze, and now Martyn Brabbins – and all three have something to say.
As an interpreter Brabbins is perhaps the most reassuringly ‘central’. He can be spacious but skirts ponderousness, while his acute awareness of texture never threatens to become an end in itself. As an added incentive for this first Hyperion instalment he couples a clutch of rarities rather than offering any of the usual makeweights. A London Symphony is played in the rare, intermediate, edition recorded uncut (and swiftly) in 1941 by Sir Eugene Goossens and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (a Biddulph compact disc) and, much more recently, by Martin Yates and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Dutton). This publication doesn’t sprawl as much as the less truly ‘symphonic’, more programmatic original championed by Richard Hickox with the LSO (Chandos). Its overall profile (as opposed to details of scoring) resembles that of the definitive 1930s’ publication, save for an extended passage towards the end of the slow movement, apparently much admired by Bernard Herrmann, and another, later blue-pencilled from the Finale’s epilogue.
Brabbins launches his reading with mysterious breadth and gravitas but is more willing than some of his rivals to vary the pace in a multifaceted, often chipper reading of the carnivalesque opening movement. I don’t know whether the score itself encourages such an approach but rest assured there’s nothing here that fails to convince. The slow movement is one of the most glorious on disc. You might conceivably find Brabbins overly deliberate but his dignity and restraint are just as moving as the more overt Romanticism of Barbirolli et al, the climax (slightly adjusted here) by no means cool. In its subtlety and refinement the music often sounds French though that impression may reflect the impact of Hyperion’s booklet note. Here, Robert Matthew-Walker on provocative form delves into the background of the Ravel connection, pointing out how closely Vaughan Williams’s opening draws upon Delius’s Paris: The Song of a Great City. The Scherzo is nicely turned, again without undue haste, and the march element of the Finale is devoid of pomp or triumphalism, its biggest climax raw and anguished. Monet’s images of Westminster spring irresistibly to mind at the close.
The filler pieces are of mainly specialist interest. ‘Sound sleep’, scored for three awkwardly overlapping female voices and small orchestra, is a Christina Rossetti setting from 1903. It could scarcely be better served. Brabbins himself had a hand in preparing material for this version of ‘Orpheus with his lute’ (1901-3), a distinctly Edwardian take of Shakespeare delightfully sung by Elizabeth Watts. More substantial is the Variations (1957), a twelve-minute ‘theme and variations’. Often given in Gordon Jacob’s orchestral transcription, the piece has been somewhat neglected in its original brass-band guise, lacking as it does much in the way of extrovert display. Matthew-Walker considers it “demonstrably a late masterpiece from a great composer.”
Whatever your take on that, the present issue belongs at or near the top of the Vaughan Williams Christmas list. Ever since 2011, when he collaborated with Lawrence Power in beautifully wrought renditions of Flos Campi and the Suite for Viola (also Hyperion), Brabbins has proved himself an unfailingly sensitive interpreter of the composer. It helps that the BBCSO’s brass and strings summon up an unusual quota of consoling warmth.