Vaughan Wiliams's A London Symphony (his preferred title rather than Symphony no. 2) is as familiar to the British as it is unfamiliar to us in America (in a catalog of over 4500 broadcast concerts, I find no U.S. performances), and favorite recordings necessarily include RVW's two great devotees, Boult and Barbirolli, along with a recording of the complete original score under Richard Hickox. For this 2007 CD Sir Mark Elder conducts the last revised version from 1936, two decades after the premiere. It's tauter and shorter but no less atmospheric than the first one. An ideal performance doesn't simply evoke London in varying moods from dawn to dusk, from repose to boisterous traffic - it would also convey the great affection that has built up around A London Symphony over the years.
Elder doesn't aim for that ideal, however. He gives us strong contrasts - after the hushed opening, the sudden arrival of city activity lands like a cannon shot - along with vivid sound and a focus on detail rather than sweep. The Halle Orch. plays twice as well as it ever did under Barbirolli, and there's nothing to disparage in the performance, which goes along quite enjoyably. But the Edwardian world has left few emotional footprints in this music, so far as I could feel. There's no core of enthusiastic energy in evidence. I don't speak, however, as someone who has kept his ear glued to every recording of the score since thee Flood.
The pairing is appealing - the Oboe Cto. written for the once-renowned Leon Goosens (brother of conductor Eugene), whose twangy nasal tone was a touchstone of British woodwind sound in its day. Barbirolli's wife, Evelyn rothwell, was also an oboist and first chair in the Halle. Here we get the present first char, Stéphane Rancourt, whose technique is first rate, as Lady Evelyn's wasn't exactly. The Oboe Cto. is a wartime work (1944), but like RVW's Sym. no. 5 doesn't betray a response to armed conflict. The wistful first movement is even marked Rondo pastorale, which is the symphony's prevailing mood. Unexpectedly, the soloist isn't given a long, lyrical melody but instead almost constant passagework, a bit reminiscent of the Nielsen Flute Cto.
The composer seems to think of the oboe as a country instrument tooted to keep time for dancing - there's a dance in the second half of the first movement, followed by a brief (2:46 min.) Menuet and Musette as second movement. The finale is the major movement - longer and more complex than the others, with faster toodling on the oboe. But i'm afraid that toodling feels like the operative word throughout. The concerto isn't top-drawer Vaughan Williams, and its movements are too similar in their bucolic lightness.
In all, a recording to buy if you want A London Symphony in updated sound with a sophisticated approach.