VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: A London Symphony
(Symphony No. 2) (original 1913
version). BUTTERWORTH: The Banks of Green Willow
Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) was already 41 when he finished A Symphony by a Londoner, which became A London Symphony (No. 2 in his canon of nine) by the time of its first performance in 1914, in the Queen's Hall, London, with Geoffrey Toye conducting. The full score was then sent to Germany on request, but got lost when WW1 broke outin any event, it was never found. With his young friend George Butterworth (who prodded him to write an orchestral symphony after the choral Sea Symphony, a Moby Dick of a piece, relentlessly in D major), VW reconstructed the work from the orchestral parts, assisted by Toye and Edward J. Dent. Dan Godfrey and Adrian Boult both conducted it in 1915. Thereafter, VW revised the work three times during the next two decadesin 1915, 1920, and 1933. The last "revised edition" was published in 1936 and has been used ever since, with a single exception: Eugene Goossens, in his 1941 recording with the Cincinnati Symphony for RCA Victor, included some passages from the 1920 version, to the puzzlement of critics, commentators and audiences who didn't know the work's history. All this and more can be read with some optical discomfort in 8-pt. white type on a sapphire blue background in the generous program book that accompanies this first recording ever of the 1913 "original" as reconstructed (with already a few if not many changes).
In 1951, VW revised Symphonies 1, 3, 4, 5 and 6 written to that pointthe Bruckner of British music, one is tempted to saybut not A London Symphony, declaring that he'd already done what could be done with an (implicitly) headstrong piece. It became and remains the most popular of his symphonies, recorded profusely through the yearsthree times by Boult, twice by André Previn, at least twice by Sir John Barbirolli, and singly by a host of others including Sir Henry Wood, Vernon Handley, Bryden Thomson, Bernard Haitink, and Leonard Slatkin. But always to my ears (brought up on Goossens' recording) something seemed to be missingjust as Bruckner's 1889 revision of his Third "misses something" (such as 8 minutes hacked out of the finale), or Leopold Nowak's edition of the same composer's Eighth (likewise structurally mutilated post partum).
However, VW's widow Ursula was persuaded by parties unknown to permit this recordingbut only this recording, without further public performancesof the"original" version. Richard Hickox's welcome, not to say ideal performance lasts 61:19, vs. Boult's 43:01, in his terminal remake for EMI in 1970 at the age of 81. Hickox's slower tempi in the opening movement (which VW never touched) and in the slow movement, which was severly shortened, account for some of this startling difference. Boult's 1970 recording of the 1933 slow movement lasts 9:32; Hickox's goes on for 16:16in part because he reads VW's Lento to mean Largo. This allows some lovely Impressionistic detail to register, but too much dawdles, even wallows. Sorry, but if the widow was going to OK a recording, she should have insisted that Vernon Handley conduct; he made the two loveliest VW recordings I cherish from a seeming myriadSymphony No. 5, and the ballet Jobboth with the Royal Liverpool Orchestra.
In the 1913 original we hear a more somber, indeed elegiac slow movement, as well as a much longer Scherzo from which the composer subtracted an entire second Trio. This music likewise reflects a darker side of the city, along with fruits of private study with Ravel a few years earlier.
Finally, VW cut the finale almost as extensively as Bruckner mutilated the final movement of his Third Symphonya 6:50 difference in timing between Boult's (at 12:00) and Hickox's (at 18:50). VW told Butterworth and others that H.G. Wells' 1909 novel Tono-Bungay strongly influenced his original conceptionnot the first or last prescient work by Wells. But annotators have always edited the book's conclusion to imply that whatever history might bring, there would always be an England. But this is how the book really ended, and VW's extended Andante sostenuto-Lento Epilog reflected in 1913:
"The last great movement of the London Symphony in which the true scheme of the old order is altogether dwarfed and swallowed up.· Light after light goes down, England and the Kingdom, Britain and the Empire, the old prides and the old devotions, glide abeam, astern, sink down upon the horizon, passpass. The river passesLondon passesEngland passes...."
Whether WW1, in which VW served despite his age, made him loath to acknowledge the End of an Era, indeed the End of a Way of Life, he changed and stiffened the jawline of A London Symphony surgically in the next 18 years. The "final revision" may not be as grotesque as the face of Michael Jackson today, but VW's 1913 original is a work of profound, sometimes sad beautya tone poem at times even more than a symphony. Or, rather, a series of four tone poems that comprise a symphony. The long-missing parts are quite startling in their vivid as well as somber visionnowhere more than in the Scherzo, marked "Nocturne," which depicts the Strand's seamier, rowdier, more dangerous, after-dark street life.
A London Symphony is prefaced by the short-lived (1885-1916) Butterworth's The Banks of Green Willow, composed during the same year as his elder friend's work. It is a short, pretty period piece, but trivial by comparison. Best that it comes first and can be skipped. The sound, a "Chandos 24-bit recording" by Brian Couzens made in All Saints' Church, Tooting, is beautifully lucid and ambiently precise, albeit a little bass-shy for those who have lived like I with EMI's 1985, digitially remastered Boult. A double listing in Schwann/Opus raises the hope that one of them might be a more recent remastering. But with respect to musical content, notwithstanding the eminent Sir Adrian's five-decade identification with A London Symphony, VW's 1933 "final revision" still sounds truncated, especially so now that his masterwork has been revealed in its original form.
R.D. (June 2001)