By Jonathan Blumhofer
These are tough, feisty, devastating pieces — easily among the 20th century’s finest symphonies — and they receive ferocious readings from Antonio Pappano and the LSO.
If Antonio Pappano’s new recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphonies nos. 4 and 6 with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) is any indication, the ensemble’s found itself an inspired new music director. Granted, Pappano isn’t taking over from Simon Rattle until 2024, but there are fireworks enough in these performances to suggest an invigorating partnership between the LSO the English-Italian conductor (who’s currently the longtime chief of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden).
To be sure, these are two of the mightiest symphonies in the canon. Vaughan Williams denied that either was programmatic, but one needn’t dig too deep to unearth the music’s potent expressivity.
He wrote the Fourth in 1934 and, if its surging intensity doesn’t explicitly evoke the turmoil of a world in the grip of economic depression and political upheaval, it captures plenty else. The Sixth was completed in 1947; here, the composer’s protestations of abstractedness are even harder to accept, given the music’s bleak, tragic mien.
Regardless, these are tough, feisty, devastating pieces — easily among the 20th century’s finest symphonies — and they receive ferocious readings from Pappano and his London band.
This Fourth is intense and driven throughout. Its outer movements surge and swagger: Pappano draws a slashing account of the opening of the first, while the finale is expertly sculpted and highlighted by some magnificent brass section playing. In between comes a beautifully-textured slow movement — dry but never icy in tone — while the Scherzo is well-balanced and spirited.
Pappano’s take on the Sixth is likewise fresh and colorful. Tempos move with purpose and the score’s striking elements (like its echoes of jazz and Shostakovich) come out strongly. Throughout, there’s a terrific sense of urgency and purpose to the LSO’s playing: the central hymn in the second movement sings pointedly, while the devastating, hushed finale unfolds with an implacable intensity.
Indeed, this recording of the Sixth was taped just days before England shut down for the first time due to the coronavirus pandemic last March (the Fourth was recorded in November 2019). Pappano’s introductory note to the recording references the orchestra’s peculiar concentration during that performance; that one feels it, palpably, in this recording is a testament both to the LSO’s playing that day and the excellent work of LSO Live’s engineering team.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.