Mark Elder / Hallé Orchestra

Vaughan Williams: A London Symphony; Oboe Concerto

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The inaudibility of the quietest musical sections is the only thing to mar this excellent recording of two compositions by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Mark Elder leading the Hallé Orchestra and oboist Stéphane Rancourt bring out so much lush beauty that listeners are likely to feel compelled to simply sit back, close their eyes, and go along for the musical ride. The Symphony No. 2 opens the album. A fairly lengthy work, it has four movements that draw on Vaughan Williams' strengths of creating layered string harmonies and graceful melodies. Once the first movement comes into audibility, it becomes quite dramatic and exciting. The brass are bright and punctuate the music of the strings. The second movement is like a slow sunrise, and then grandly sweeping and majestic in the middle of the piece. Rather than a snapshot of London, one might suggest that the movement depicts a soaring flight over a landscape, or an immense, inspiring vista. It has a programmatic feel that is nothing short of stunning. As before, it is frustrating to try to hear the softest passages on the CD, even at full volume, which does detract from the listening experience. The third movement scherzo is sprightly, bouncy, and spirited; Vaughan Williams has a light touch here, demonstrating his mastery of string orchestration. The fourth movement is also rather programmatic in feel, a fitting conclusion to a tribute to one of the world's greatest cities. The Concerto in A minor for oboe and strings is composed in a vein comparable to the symphony, with a similar use of orchestral textures and colors, but the obvious difference is the solo oboe. Played by Rancourt, it avoids the reedy melancholy often associated with the instrument. The listener is struck by the hypnotic, Indian classical-like oboe melody in the Rondo pastorale; like a bird or butterfly gardening about an orchestral meadow, one simply cannot take one's ears off it. Rancourt is an extremely agile performer; his style is fluid and smooth and he achieves a timbre almost like a flute, as one can hear in the Finale. This work, too, is a delight. The orchestra understands every nuance of the music, maintaining a sense of levity and characteristically English serenity and grace throughout the album. It is a match made in heaven between the musicians and the repertoire, and this is indeed very lucky for the listener.

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