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Customer Review

on 1 March 2012
If I am not mistaken, this is the first recording of A London Symphony since Richard Hickox's pioneering 1913 original version on the Chandos label released in 2001. Here we have the more familiar 1936 final edition of the score. Sir Mark Elder, it seems to me has suddenly blossomed as an interpreter of Vaughan Williams' music. This is a monumental score and he approaches it as such and overall it is a very good performance, with excellent recording, but I have some reservations. The recording was taken from a live (2010) performance at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, but you would hardly know it, no audience sound is perceptible. The hushed opening is magical, after the murmurings in the basses the symphony slowly arises from the mists into daylight and off we go into the busy streets of the capital, tremendous forward momentum, colour and atmosphere that this kaleidoscopic first movement needs. Elder adopts almost exactly the same timings for each movement as his great predecessor Sir John Barbirolli in the recording he made with the Hallé in 1957. The difference is however in mood, Elder's version is a majestic and truly symphonic account but lacks at times the passion and intensity of Barbirolli. This is particularly noticeable in the slow movement, which despite beautiful playing and recording never reaches the intense rapture captured in the earlier recording. Then to the scherzo, which for me lacked the bounce and excitement that the composer's sprung rhythms should bring to this lively but mysterious nocturne. The finale is much more successful and after the anguished opening and sombre march the music builds in grandeur before the chimes usher in the nicely judged epilogue and the symphony fades into silence.
The Oboe concerto is a studio recording and is most beautifully played by the French-Canadian soloist, Stéphane Rancourt with wonderful accompaniment from the Hallé strings. What an exquisite work of art this is, surely the finest and I think now the most frequently played of the composer's concerti. This work has a yearning, pastoral atmosphere though there are moments of darkness and agitated intensity in the last movement. The playing of the opening movement paints a wide Arcadian landscape as the composer reverts to his familiar meditative style. There is a chirpy middle section where the soloist has a nice spring in his heels before returning to the earlier contemplative mood. The short second movement which although a minuet has in this recording a fresh open air feel to it and is faultlessly played. The finale calls for truly virtuoso playing and Rancourt delivers with seeming effortlessness. The music ebbs and flows with the clear, lyrical oboe to the fore but there are moments of hushed quietness where time seems to stand still, perhaps moments of remembrance? The lush strings are wonderful throughout never intruding, whether in soft murmurings or soaring to the ethereal, luminescent string sound that is the trademark of Vaughan Williams. The CD comes with authoritative liner notes by Michael Kennedy. I know of no finer recording of this concerto, however for an alternative version with a more chamber sized accompaniment, Maurice Bourgue on Nimbus is excellent with faster tempi in every movement and a recording of exceptional clarity.
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