What a creepy coincidence that two of the most harrowing British orchestral works ever written would be recorded on two of the nation’s most fateful dates in recent history. December 12, 2019 was election day. It’s impossible to imagine that anyone involved with the London Symphony Orchestra had any idea of the horrors that would take place the following year, but there’s a bristling intensity, a sense of dread and desperation in their performance of Vaughan Williams’ 1935 Symphony No. 4 at the Barbican that night.
Antonio Pappano also led the orchestra through Vaughan Williams’ much differently dark Symphony No. 6 there on March 15 of last year, the final day of freedom in that country. To date, this chilling, riveting performance – streaming at Spotify – is the last live orchestral album ever recorded in the United Kingdom. Some rock bands have recorded clandestinely since then, but it’s hard to imagine that a full orchestra could pull off such a feat. And this isn’t just a powerful, insightful interpretation of two iconic works: these performances will rip your face off.
There’s a franticness to the introduction of the first movement of Symphony No. 4, leaving no doubt that the gusting pulses afterward do not bode well. The brass is particularly strong here, enhancing the effect, especially as the chromatics grow more macabre. By contrast, the lull afterward seems more conspiratorial – or more enigmatically suspenseful – by comparison to most recordings (the BBC Symphony under Martyn Brabbins also put out a noteworthy, grimly colorful recording of this last year).
Pappano’s dynamics are just as rich in the second movement, from the initial stalker bassline, to methodically pulsing portents, the morose flute theme overhead. a crashing coda and then the lustrously sweeping yet relentless unease afterward. The leaps and bounds of the third movement become more of a chase scene than danse macabre, notwithstanding a momentary cheery, Tschaikovskian interlude. Brisk as this may be, all hands are on deck and primed for battle.
Likewise, the faux-martial bombast of the fourth is downright Shostakovian, which becomes even more striking considering how low Pappano brings the lights down for the deep-space reverie midway through. Few ensembles allow themselves to channel the kind of sheer terror this orchestra does at the end. To call this music prophetic is an understatement: where so much of the world was oblivious, Ralph Vaughan Williams obviously had his eye on the ball.
Where Symphony No. 4 is a prelude, No. 6 is a dystopic postlude, composed in 1947. The opening movement’s series of crashing collapses – the ultimate epic fail, and possibly a Battle of Britain portrait – give way to a witheringly cynical, bounding, vaudevillian theme that follows, Pappano reaching for fullscale phantasmagoria. This could be Hitler, or someone closer to home. The aching, bittersweet longing that emerges immediately afterward will break your heart. When are we going to get back to normal, he asks. Will we ever get back to normal?
Movement two strongly echoes both the stalking menace of Symphony No. 4’s second movement and the vastness of the third, along with a bit of famously bellicose Tschaikovsky. Is this the composer trying to remind us that we’d better remember our history so as not to repeat it?
What’s with that tenor sax weaving in and out of the third movement’s mashup of the work’s initial bustle and striding cynicism? Pillorying postwar optimism, or for that matter any kind of optimism, it would seem: Hitler may have been toast, but the Soviet Union was as much a horror as ever and the Chinese Communist Party’s genocidal campaigns would soon be underway. Like the third movement of Symphony No. 4, this is on the fast side, but the impact is unescapable.
As is the utterly eerie, funereal hush throughout the fourth movement: Vaughan Williams slows down his signature interweave so we can watch the gears’ fateful motion up close this time, and Pappano has the orchestra locking in their long-range sights. An oboe solo channels longing and disappointment; the shivers from the strings go on and on and bring a chill that never lifts. You could call this a musical counterpart to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins.
The London Symphony Orchestra have released a ton of live recordings since the lockdown, and most of them have been fantastic. One suspects that they have many more lined up on the runway, but so far this is the very best of them all. In fact, this may be the best album of 2021 in any style of music.