Sir Antonio Pappano leads the London Symphony Orchestra in a pair of symphonies by Ralph Vaughan Williams that span the build-up and aftermath of the Second World War.
Throughout the Fourth Symphony Vaughan Williams channels tension and power through the music in amongst moments of light and clarity. It evokes a sense of hardship and persistence, suggesting the ever-present threat of war in the 1930s.
Written in 1947, the composer’s Sixth Symphony also seems to reflect the hardships and devastation wrought by World War II. Melancholic in some movements, ferocious in others.
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London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Antonio Pappano, Conductor
Total time: 01:08:06
Sir Antonio Pappano appears courtesy of Warner Classics
|Original Recording Format|
Recorded Live in DSD 256 at the Barbican Hall in London on December 12, 2019 (Symphony No. 4) and March 15, 2020 (Symphony No. 6)
|Release Date||April 16, 2021|
Listeners accustomed to Vaughan Williams in his pastoral and folksong modes will find both these symphonies disconcerting. No.4 flings out jagged, edgy episodes one after another; even in less agitated passages, unstable harmonies and irregular meters perpetuate a general unease. The Sixth, mirroring the horrors of World War II, is more formal—its third movement is a recognizable ABA scherzo—but equally unsettled: A laborious control renders the quiet passages ominous, after which the outbursts are the starker and more terrifying.
Pappano, a Briton by birth, applies his operatic temperament to these scores’ dramatic intensity. Rhythmic energy, in themes and accompaniments, propels the music forward, and he’s attentive to color: Note the seamless transition from tenor sax to bassoon in the Sixth’s Epilogue. The various walking-bass patterns keep the mood off-balance. The Sixth’s conclusion evokes desolation and finality, and the conductor meets the Fourth’s relentless turbulence head-on. He shapes the Scherzo‘s metrical patterns with assurance and imbues the Finale with a hearty swagger—though I’d not swear everything there lines up precisely.
The LSO plays confidently. The woodwinds—the Fourth’s plaintive oboe and solitary flute; the Sixth’s English horn and tenor sax—are striking. The strings sustain the extended pianissimo of the Sixth’s Epilogue/ superbly.
The engineering is vivid. The ambience, for all the churning, doesn’t obscure detail. Brass eruptions register with depth. In the Sixth’s first movement, the reeds are dramatically “placed” center stage.
Set down at the Barbican the evening before the UK’s Covid lockdown for concert halls and theatres in March 2020, Antonio Pappano’s scrupulously prepared and urgently communicative reading of Vaughan Williams’s Sixth Symphony is a splendidly cogent affair, with no lack of sinewy thrust and tension levels a welcome notch or two higher than on Mark Elder’s Hallé account (10/17).
Pappano plunges us into the opening maelstrom with thrillingly combustible results, the LSO responding with infectious application, while the second subject’s full flowering at one after fig 15 or 6’03” is paced to flowing perfection (its p cantabile and f dolce markings meticulously adhered to).
In the ensuing Moderato Pappano’s iron grip is nowhere more potently displayed than in that rivetingly expectant paragraph starting at fig 8 or 4’57”, where pianissimo strings usher the softly insistent return of the trumpets’ minatory motif. The Scherzo, too, is both rhythmically agile and flecked with arresting detail, rising to a baleful climax in the Trio’s hair-raising reprise at fig 39 or 5’13” (unison ff tenuto violins and violas cutting through the fabric to telling effect). Best of all is the Epilogue: unswervingly concentrated, articulate (listen out for some remarkably seamless legato work from trumpets and trombones between figs 5 and 7, 4’39” and 6’03”) and properly observant of RVW’s repeated sempre pp e senza crescendo request throughout.
Those imponderable closing measures distil a truly awesome mystery to cap an uncommonly impressive Sixth that not only rewardingly complements Andrew Manze’s altogether leaner, no less stimulating RLPO version (for me the finest component in his cycle – Onyx, 4/18) but is also, I think, deserving of a place alongside Boult (1949-50 and 1953, with the LSO and LPO respectively), Barbirolli (an unforgettable live performance with the Bavarian RSO from April 1970), Andrew Davis, Handley’s RLPO remake and Haitink at the head of the pack.
Recorded the previous December, the Fourth strikes me as somewhat less trenchant, though still full of notable virtues. Apart from the missing timpani at two after fig 10 or 3’27” in the first movement, the orchestral playing is alert, punchy and vital, Pappano stoking the fires to commendable effect from the outset. That said, I was most taken with the wealth of tender poetry he lavishes upon the first movement’s haunting Lento coda (not to mention the eloquence of the principal trumpet’s solo phrase that leads into it). Both here and in the slow movement Pappano’s pliable, humane approach recalls Mitropoulos and Bernstein in this music – high praise in my book! Might the transition into the finale have generated a touch greater coiled tension (something Ryan Wigglesworth’s sizzling May 2013 concert relay with the LPO has in spades – 5/15)?
All of which is another way of saying that Pappano’s Fourth doesn’t quite evince the wholeness of Boult (in 1953), Handley, Haitink or Brabbins (whose enviably lucid, unforced conception seems to grow in stature every time I return to it – Hyperion, 1/20). Nor does it shock to the core like the composer’s and Barbirolli’s incendiary BBC SO accounts from 1937 and 1950.
No matter, this undeniably powerful newcomer remains well worth experiencing. Vivid DSD sound and a tastefully judged balance, too. I do hope we can look forward to more Vaughan Williams symphonies from this source.
The Sunday Times – Album of the Week
Pappano’s debut on the LSO’s own label coincides with his appointment as its chief conductor from 2024.
These live recordings of Vaughan Williams’s most dissonant, rebarbative symphonies are as auspicious as André Previn’s studio versions of Nos 6 to 8 made immediately before his appointment to the same post in 1968, which led to one of the most acclaimed recorded VW cycles. Although the composer refused to explain the “meaning” of his symphonies, both are among his most modern-sounding works.
Pappano’s dramatic, thrustful accounts, vividly recorded, have a momentous, dynamic allure that bodes well for his future tenure, and the orchestra plays this music — the opening bars of the Sixth will recall the 1970s TV drama A Family at War to older listeners — to the manner born. A live Pappano/LSO cycle would be an exciting prospect.
If you would like a one-word review, that word is “tremendous”. These great Symphonies (both premiered by Sir Adrian Boult) – respectively written either side of World War Two – have found in Sir Antonio a charismatic and insightful interpreter, not afraid to take-off with this powerful music knowing that the LSO will be with him
The Sixth Symphony (recorded March 15 last year … then Lockdown) sears into life, industrial levels of intensity maintained until the lyrical tune (hinted at during the first movement’s course) finally offers an expansive beacon of hope if soon subsumed into the relentless second movement, ideally kept going here with a definable current without losing its sinister darkness, it’s rarely as compelling as this, then swept away by a macabre/sleazy-saxophone Scherzo (brought off with panache) that extinguishes into the wasteland Finale, pianissimo throughout, a direction duly observed yet with edge-of-seat expression, however numbed, and threadbare the sounds.
With the Fourth Symphony (December 12, 2019 – from a concert that included an impressive reading of Michael Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra), another rollercoaster performance is unleashed on a par with the composer’s own incendiary 1937 version (and Leonard Slatkin’s for that matter). Of particular note in this account is the inhospitable landscape that is the second movement, icily emotive. What follows (Scherzo and Finale, linked by a mysterious Beethoven 5-like transition) matches the first movement for firepower and spite as we ride to the abyss, no way out, the ultimate fateful chord thumped home.
We have had plenty of notable Vaughan Williams of late – not least from Brabbins, Elder and Manze – and this release from Pappano and the LSO is just as indispensable. Played superbly and devotedly, recorded dynamically and impactfully, and comprehensively capturing Pappano’s antiphonal violins and left-positioned basses, recognizably the Barbican Hall in fact.
The Lebrecht Weekly
Recordings of Ralph Vaughan Williams fall into the middle of the Atlantic. English interpreters – Boult, Barbirolli, Hickox, Handley and most recently Andrew Manze – veer towards understatement, allowing the power of the music to emerge by stealth. Americans – Stokowski, Previn, Slatkin – are more energetic and explicit. These may be broad generalizations, but they reflect just how narrow the arteries are of Vaughan Williams reception. No star non-UK or US conductor has ever taken up his symphonies.
Where do these concerts by the London Symphony Orchestra’s new chief Sir Antonio Pappano come into the equation? Somewhere middle of the route. Italian born and London bred, Pappano brings a dramatic perspective from his operatic occupation without distorting the gentle rhythms of the English landscape that are so central to the composer’s nature.
He hustles things along in the fourth symphony, where Boult gets bogged down, and he shows real anger in the sixth. These are cogent and apt approaches, reminiscent in certain ways of John Barbirolli in the 1930s before he succumbed to disappointment and drink. The LSO have this music in their bloodstream since its inception and if their clarity on record is less than pristine, that is down to bad hall acoustics and engineering.
The fourth symphony (1934) displays RVW at his most Sibelian. The sixth (1944-47) is ruminative and morose, shadowed by contemporary world events. Its performance here was given in mid-March 2020, just ahead of the first Covid-19 lockdown. The atmosphere is apprehensive. Pappano avoids stressing the textures in terrifying times. He lets the music say it all.
Classical Music Sentinel
Now that news headlines have confirmed that conductor Sir Antonio Pappano will become Chief Conductor Designate of the London Symphony Orchestra in September 2023, replacing Sir Simon Rattle who, disappointed by the Brexit outcome, plans to return to Germany and apply for German citizenship, we are well assured that more recordings of this nature, and hopefully stature as well, lie on the horizon. If the present “live” recording is any indication we are in for some impressive music-making. Antonio Pappano was born in London to Italian parents. Sir Antonio Pappano has been Music Director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, since 2002 and has released not only many fine Opera recordings, featuring many of today’s finest singers, but also well-received recordings of orchestral music by Respighi, Rachmaninov, and Prokofiev amongst others.
The two most idiomatic symphonies of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) are showcased together on this recording. For a composer who at the onset of his career had no intention to write symphonies but, in the end, composed nine of some of the best examples of 20th century symphonic music, his Symphonies Nos. 4 & 6 stand as the most powerful and enigmatic (is there anything more enigmatic and inscrutable than the final movement of the Sixth) of his output.
The composer didn’t leave behind any programmatic details or notes as to their underlying narrative impetus, but it’s obvious that both symphonies are a reaction to the war, either to its ominous prospect or its devastating aftermath. From the convulsively violent opening movement of the Fourth, to its Waltonesque scherzo, to its highly complex, agitated, and contrapuntal final movement which leads to a resolute and intransigent ending, it’s very much the work of a composer stepping out of his comfort zone and threading new ground to great effect. Ralph Vaughan Williams had started writing music for film scores during the war and the Sixth certainly has cinematic scope to it, highly evident in its assured first movement loaded with bold orchestration touches and particularly dynamic scoring for the brass section that includes a tenor saxophone which takes the leading role a few times during the third movement. There’s an overall “tip of the hat” to Gustav Holst atmosphere within this symphony, most strikingly the “Neptune” like (minus the choir of course) ending of its inscrutable final movement. And this movement in particular stands out as being masterfully shaped and controlled by Antonio Pappano and highly expressively conveyed by the musicians of the orchestra.
The recording of the Fourth took place during a concert in Barbican Hall on December 12th, 2019, and the Sixth on the 15th of March 2020, the night before the first pandemic lockdown in Britain was announced. In the booklet notes the conductor states that both nights had a tangible electric energy to them. And I must say that both performances, charged with highly committed, expressive and steadfast playing, confirm that statement. Sounds like Pappano and London will be a great partnership.
Presto Classical – Recording of the Week
Even without that added emotional ratchet of the impending lockdown, Pappano’s accounts would surely have been utterly gripping.
From the first grinding dissonances of the Fourth it’s clear that he understands these works on a profound level…One thing he captures particularly magnificently here – the equal even of Handley, who I’ve long considered the benchmark for Vaughan Williams’s symphonies – is the muted numbness of the quieter moments.
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