It was 1943, and the Allies were battling the Nazis and their collaborators on several fronts. In bomb-cratered England, Ralph Vaughan Williams stepped in on short notice for his one and only performance as conductor for the world premiere of one of his symphonies. Desperate times, desperate measures.
Considering the conditions under which it was written, it’s no surprise that his Symphony No. 5 is the most smallscale in his notoriously lavish cycle. Contemporary accounts called the premiere a success. There’s a new recording with Martyn Brabbins leading the BBC Symphony Orchestra, whose often transcendent performance resonates just as strongly in our even more troubled era.
The ensemble open with a familiar Vaughan Williams trope, a constant, increasingly turbulent round-robin of windswept counterpoint. Led by the brass in its most somber moments of foreshadowing, this is the pinnacle of British Romanticism. If you wonder where the towering angst of the art-rock bands of the 1970s, particularly the Moody Blues, came from, the source material doesn’t get richer than this. How absolutely heartbreaking it is to hear these panoramas, knowing that the citizens of the countryside that so profoundly influenced this music are now under siege and largely unable to see those landscapes in person. Where is this era’s Martin Niemoller?
The orchestra execute the swirls and leaping riffs of the second movement with a poinpoint precision across the spectrum, drawing equally on Sibelius and a series of themes the composer had written around the same time for a broadcast of John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress. The distantly disquieted, nocturnal vastness and aching lustre of the third movement packs a wallop in this era: when will this be over, Vaughan Williams seems to be asking. Bringing the circling intensity of the introduction full circle, the orchestra offer hope with the mighty, prayerful fourth movement.
To put the symphony in even more resonant context, the album also contains a series of short themes from Vaughan Williams’ postwar operatic epic Pilgrim’s Progress. The excerpts here were recorded in 2019 (a year after the symphony) with a considerably different cast of musicians. Vocal soloists Emily Portman, Kitty Whately and Marcus Farnsworth are bolstered by the BBC Chorus and BBC Singers Quartet in these thirteen selections, ranging from fleeting set pieces to folksy dances and more expansive songs, many of them echoing themes recycled in the symphony.