In the creative body of work by composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, symphony no.2, “A London Symphony”, forms both an ending and a beginning. Vaughan Williams’ intensive work with the English folksong, specifically, his collecting of folksongs, ends in 1913, precisely when he finished his first version of the “London Symphony”. His work with the idiom of the folksong is thus reflected in the symphony. Direct references to the folksong remain fragments in the symphony, and these references are, as Vaughan Williams wrote, merely “accidentals, not essentials”.
In the “London Symphony”, he transfers the formulaic repertoire and archetypal interval pattern of the English folksong into the purely instrumental form. This is the starting point for truly characterizing the symphonies of Vaughan Williams – the simultaneous contrast of two worlds: the catastrophe and the folksiness, the contrast, yes, the dialectic of the dramatic and the epic – a characterization that is profiled in the symphony no. 2 and will have significant influence on his subsequent symphonies. Characteristic of this dialectic are sharp contrast of decidedly chromatic blocks and decidedly diatonic passages. The latter are based on the influences of the English folksong and show that the vocal element is very strong in the music of Vaughan Williams. And it is this element that is cutting-edge again and again. Symphony no. 2 in still more connected to the rhapsodic element of symphonic poems than it is a true symphony. This is not surprising since Vaughan Williams first planned to write a symphonic poem about London and already gave it the title “Notes for Orchestral Impression ‘London’”.
Premiered just before World War I, the London Symphony corresponds to the end of the H.G. Wells’ novel “Tono Bungay”. Starting with the insanity of the fate of the protagonist George Ponderovo, whose uncle invents the magic medicine Tono Bungay and thereby gains in reputation the power, Wells describes in this novel the panorama of a corrupt, degenerate imperial society. In the fourteenth chapter of the novel entitled “night and the open sea”, the narrator George Ponderovo reports how he travels down the Thames on a new developed destroyer and thereby seems to review all of England in retrospective. * This “remaining in flow” is basically there also a direct measure for interpreters of this symphony. For all its colorfulness, it is no lightweight, nothing incidental, and by no means easy to play. The world’s oldest youth orchestra, the National Youth Orchestra of Wales, established in 1945 and under the direction of Owain Arwell Hughes, has taken up the challenge and delivered a neatly produced performance of the London Symphony. The NYOW is also fully convincing in its performance of the “Celtic Dances” op. 60 of William Mathias, a composer who saw an early death.
High standards of quality are typical for the repertoire of the NYOW, which in its long existence has performed the works of Beethoven, Mahler, Elgar and even Ligeti and has commissioned works by Karl Jenkins and Gareth Wood. The orchestra approaches Vaughan Williams’ symphony no. 2 with youthful brilliance and full, mid-voice strong sound coloring characteristic of a completely unique weighting of this symphony and sets it apart from other performances to date. Owain Arwel Hughes conducts firmly, sometimes too firmly, formulates and transitions somewhat hectically. The contrasts of the epic and the dramatic, which are so marked in this symphony, are thus somewhat reconciled where there really is nothing to reconcile. At the beginning of the second movement, the balance among the horns, which are quite loud at first, suffers somewhat as the entry into the dynamic spectrum of the symphony becomes more and more audible, is compensated by the energetic playing of the young people, yes the dynamics of the necessary passages grows to a self-confident revelation of splendor. Hughes lets everything play out very accurately. In doing so, however, he allows a bit of the academic to reign, but this hardly disturbs the great flow of tension. The march in the fourth movement is approached very quickly and thus is no longer anything like a procession. The visionary epilogue, meanwhile, can be heard so delicately as one can experience it only in a few other recordings of this symphony.
The “Celtic Dances” of William Mathias from 1972 strike the listener as almost banal. The actual dances, which evoke a mythological past by a modern symphony orchestra, are similar to the “Welsh Dances” of Malcolm Arnold in their stylization even if this is expressed in a very simple way. The NYOW shines with playful verve, rhythmic brilliance of the percussionists, and horns with marked contours. Here the academic can be sensed less in the interpretation of Vaughan Williams’ symphony no. 2.
This is a fortuitous publication that moreover presents sounds neatly measured in heights and depths and is accompanied by notes in English and Welsh.
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