Monday, May 01, 2006

Vaughan Williams, chauvinism & John Adams

In his latest rant Norman Lebrecht tells us: "It is no coincidence that the nine symphonies of Vaughan Williams have only ever been performed once as a cycle by Richard Hickox and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in the mid-Nineties for the curates egg, excellent as it is in parts, is not recommended to be consumed whole", and goes on to accuse English music of chauvinism, among several other vices.

In fact the complete Vaughan Williams symphonies have been performed seriatim on two other occasions, but at the time there were only six of them. The first cycle of all the then published symphonies was performed in the 1951-2 season by the Hallé Orchestra, five of them conducted by the inimitable John Barbirolli, the odd man out was the Sea Symphony (with its Walt Whitman text), for which the baton was taken by Ralph Vaughan Williams himself.


An anecdote from this Hallé cycle reminds us of life before jet set maestros and concert podcasts. When the Sea Symphony was repeated in Sheffield, again with the composer conducting, the orchestra was a 'cello short, and at Vaughan William's request Barbirolli, a talented 'cellist, took the vacant seat.

So Norman is technically right that the cycle of all nine symphonies has only been performed live once. But it is also clear that before concert planning was taken over by the Thought Police audiences were quite happy to consume whole what he describes as the curates egg of the Vaughan Williams symphonies.


Interestingly the second cycle of the six completed symphonies was given during the 1952 Promenade Concerts season in London. Wouldn't stormin' Norman's angst have been better directed at the BBC, whose just-announced 2006 Proms Season contains not one single Vaughan Williams symphony, or one note of any of his other works?

Instead we are offered John Adams' My Father Knew Charles Ives in Prom 38, a work described by the composer as “a piece of musical autobiography, and my own Proustian madeleine, but with a Yankee flavor”.

Sounds like chauvinism Uncle Sam style to me Norman.

Now playing - Vaughan Williams Symphony No 5 in D conducted by Sir John Barbirolli on EMI CDM5651102. In fairness to Norman Lebrecht he says: "The third and fifth symphonies of Vaughan Williams will hold their own against any of the epoch". I can only echo that (and add at least the fourth and sixth to the list). Surely VW's fifth is one of the great symphonies of the 20th century? Here is the opening of the Passacaglia final movement - quite simply music to die for -

CDs featured in this article are available from Prelude Records. Image credit - RVW from w3-rz-berlin, JB from Discovering Leeds. Audio sample via Amazon. Image owners - if you do not want your picture used in this article please contact me and it will be removed. Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to 'Glorious John' in New York

8 comments:

James Reel said...

Depending on your definition of "cycle," you may understandably be overlooking one from an unlikely source. Conductor Enrique Arturo Diemecke told me a few years ago that he had conducted his Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de México in all the Vaughan Williams symphonies over the course of a single season.

Pliable said...

The comment above is a gem.

Definitely counts as a cycle, I've forwarded it to Norman Lebrecht.

And it brings back some memories. I actually heard the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de México playing in Mexico City back in the mid 1970's when I was working there for EMI.

The orchestra was fine, but the weekends spent in the exquisite baroque town of Taxco were even finer.

Now - any more VW cycles from unlikely venues?

SimonT said...

Agree about the 5th. The first time I heard it live years ago, I was bowled over by it and have loved it ever since. Shame about the lack of Arnold in the Proms programme too, eh?

Pliable said...

Thanks Simon, and your comment brings back another memory.

A stunning VW 5, appropriately at the Proms in 1972, with Previn conducting the LSO in their honeymoon period. It was a hot, humid night, and thunder rolled around outside, and electricity rolled around inside the poorly ventilated Albert Hall - unforgettable!

And I totally agree about the lack of Arnold, and other important English composers, in the 2006 Proms.

It's a subject I cannot let pass, and I'll be returning to it on Wednesday.

Anonymous said...

A model example, in my view, of good proms programming is prom 34 that beautifully balances the Modern with the classics of French Music with excellent conductor,orchestra and soloist.
Why isn't there a similar prom of all English Music?
Also I love VW's 9th symphony..ok it isn't the 5th, but its pretty bloody good!

Anonymous said...

oops I overlooked prom 13..sorry.

Tim Overton said...

I'm glad to see that (in prom 13) Bliss' Colour Symphony is being played - firstly, because I love it and think it deserves a wider audience, and secondly, a snippet of it is used (and has been used for a while) in Proms adverts and on the opening titles of concerts broadcast on BBC TV.

Ditto all the other worthy British composers - I'd have loved to hear some Foulds from the CBSO at the proms.

I totally agree that Arnold should be included somewhere. I can only assume that conductors who want to play his music are dissuaded from doing so by external influences, or don't get invited to the Proms.

Rime Sparse said...

Strikes me that no one should give Lebrecht the oxygen of attention. If everybody ignored him he might shut up.