'A Triumph of Purely Musical Means': Andrew Achenbach Surveys the Recordings of Vaughan Williams's Symphony No 4, a Work of Unusual Ferocity That Naturally Lends Itself to a Wide Array of Interpretative Approaches

By Achenbach, Andrew | Gramophone, May 2014 | Go to article overview

'A Triumph of Purely Musical Means': Andrew Achenbach Surveys the Recordings of Vaughan Williams's Symphony No 4, a Work of Unusual Ferocity That Naturally Lends Itself to a Wide Array of Interpretative Approaches


Achenbach, Andrew, Gramophone


No work by Ralph Vaughan Williams has caused more of a stir or given rise to greater speculation than his craggy and ferocious Symphony in F minor. It was written between 1931 and 1934, and first performed at Queen's Hall, London, on April 10, 1935, when Adrian Boult conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Among the many notable figures present were Arnold Bax (the work's dedicatee), Constant Lambert, Albert Coates, Hamilton Harty and William Walton, who, having attended the rehearsals, told his fellow composer Arthur Benjamin that they 'were going to hear the greatest symphony since Beethoven'. An astute observation in more ways than one: Vaughan Williams himself later stated that the grinding minor ninth with which the symphony opens was 'cribbed' from the start of the finale of Beethoven's Ninth, while Beethoven's Fifth provided the template for the unforgettably expectant bridge passage between the Scherzo and finale.

Some commentators claimed that the symphony's uncompromising violence, toughness of expression and level of dissonance represented an entirely new departure for its creator. They were mistaken. In hindsight, the work can now be viewed as the culmination of an increasingly adventurous and individual period during which Vaughan Williams had further enriched and intensified his expressive and harmonic language in works such as the oratorio Sancta civitas (1923-25), Flos campi (1925), the Piano Concerto (1926-31, and which, like the symphony, also boasts a fugal finale) and the magnificent 'masque for dancing' Job (1927-30). Only later did the suggestion arise that the work's abrasive demeanour represented a warning against the rising tide of fascism. In fact, the score originally took shape prior to Hitler's rule in Germany and Mussolini's invasion of Abyssinia. In a letter from December 1937, Vaughan Williams scotched any such nonmusical links: 'I wrote it not as a definite picture of anything external--eg the state of Europe--but simply because it occurred to me like this...It is what I wanted to do at the time.' (This chimes precisely with the famous--and entirely characteristic --remark he came out with during the symphony's first rehearsals: 'I don't know whether I like it, but it's what I meant.')

Even so, loyal friends and colleagues remained unconvinced, among them Boult, who wrote in the Musical Times of October 1958 that Vaughan Williams 'foresaw the whole thing [ie war] and surely there is no more magnificent gesture of disgust in all music than the final open fifth when the composer seems to rid himself of the whole hideous idea'. Personally, I've always liked biographer Michael Kennedy's description of it as 'a kind of self-portrait: the towering rages of which Vaughan Williams was capable, his robust humour, his poetic nature--all these are here'.

Of one thing, however, I am absolutely sure: the mighty Fourth enshrines a triumph of purely musical means, and its sinewy, relentless logic marks it out as arguably the most tautly conceived of Vaughan Williams's nine symphonies.

BEGINNING AT THE BBC

No one tears into the introductory measures with quite the lacerating fury summoned by Vaughan Williams himself in his legendary October 1937 HMV recording with the BBC SO. It's a reading of incendiary force, unstoppable in its thrusting momentum (it remains the only performance to date that clocks in at under half an hour), and with tension-levels quite extraordinarily high for a studio project the concluding 'Epilogo fugato' has seldom, if ever, sounded more hair-raising in its cumulative frenzy. At the same time, what reserves of lyrical ardour the composer draws from the BBC strings in their soaring cantilena barely a minute into the work: the marking is appassionato sostenuto (with a further request at the bottom of the page for 'Melodic parts long bows')--and that is precisely what we get here. I'd also cite the violins' memorable cantabile tone at the start of the slow movement (itself irreproachably well paced throughout), and in the Tranquillo coda at fig 14 (7'54") listen to how subtly yet insistently the trombones choir the seminal four-note motif heard at the symphony's outset beneath the principal flute's lonely cadenza. …

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