LSO Sir Colin Davis

Over-exposure of audiences to the pastoral side of Vaughan Williams has had consequences for his image. Folk tunes, quintessentially English texts and lush string orchestras have made us expect to inhale the English countryside when we see one of his pieces on the programme.

In the 1930s the Symphony No 4 would have put paid to any such preconceptions. At the time of its composition it seemed to signal a new way forward for the composer’s symphonic writing. Much is often made of the uncompromising nature of the fourth’s musical material. It showed a different, more fiercely intellectual side to the composer which may have surprised him too.

The work was written during 1931-34 and first performed in 1935 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Adrian Boult. Given its discordant, martial opening and modernist harmonies, the symphony has been viewed through the prism of troubled times. It has no direct relationship to the outbreak of World War II, but is often pegged programmatically to the rise of fascism. The symphony comes in four, tightly constructed movements, and it’s the first of these which injects the work with a real sense of violence. The second movement lapses into a tense lyricism, whilst the third is a scherzo with occasional bursts of menace from muted trumpets. The final movement returns to the portentous feelings and angular motifs of the opening. It provides a highly-charged, turbulent conclusion.

The first recording of the symphony was made in 1937, with the composer taking Boult’s place on the podium. Fast forwarding to 2008, Sir Colin Davis takes charge of the London Symphony Orchestra in this recording. Together they give an exhilarating performance, revealing a level of detail in the composer’s writing which helps explain William Walton’s original reaction to the work (‘The greatest symphony since Beethoven’). As ever, Sir Colin’s mastery of this music is second to none and the sheer compositional skill of Vaughan Williams is liberated in a breathtaking manner.

James Mallinson, LSO Live Producer

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