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