Martyn Brabbins / BBC Symphony Orchestra

Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 3 'Pastoral'; Symphony No. 4; Saraband 'Helen'

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Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 3 'Pastoral'; Symphony No. 4; Saraband 'Helen' Review

by James Manheim

The approaching sesquicentennial of Ralph Vaughan Williams' birth is spawning symphony cycles and other recordings, and listeners have quite a few strong choices for the symphonies. Nevertheless, this release by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the startlingly prolific Martyn Brabbins merits strong consideration. Although the Vaughan Williams symphonies are conventionally categorized into early, middle, and late, and the program here draws from the first two, the Symphony No. 3 ("Pastoral") and Symphony No. 4 in F minor make an excellent pair in performance. The former is flowing and somehow spiritual, with counterpoint and a concluding fugue, while the latter is among Vaughan Williams' darkest and most dissonant works. The opening movement of the Fourth Symphony is unsettled from the very beginning, and Brabbins approaches the work in its proper modern spirit rather than attempting to damp it down. The Symphony No. 3, too, has a remarkable quiet energy. Brabbins has reached a point where the BBC Symphony Orchestra responds readily to his merest gesture, and as a bonus, listeners get a hitherto unknown work, the Saraband "Helen" for tenor, chorus, and orchestra, a 1913 setting of text by Christopher Marlowe, realized by Brabbins himself from a voice-and-piano score. Essential listening for Vaughan Williams fans.

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