Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) began to write in his early twenties. He continued to compose and teach until his passing at the age of 86. Williams authored operas, concertos, chamber music, choral works, and songs. He collected dozens of folk songs and edited the English Hymnal. He taught at the Royal College of Music, encouraging women composers. He is now recognized as an important composer mostly in Great Britain but unjustly ignored in the United States, a situation that could be remedied only if those in charge of the programming of symphony and chamber music concerts started to look beyond the very short list of works that season after season return to our concert halls in numbing sameness.
Even Williams’ exquisite Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis is found these days only in some recordings but not in any live performance that I can recall, not in these shores.
Fortunately, SOMM Recordings steps up to fill the Vaughn Williams gap with this beautifully Lani Spahr produced and remastered reissue of historic performances of two of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ symphonies, both with Sir Malcolm Sargent magisterially leading one of Europe’s greatest orchestras: the BBC Symphony Orchestra, in the Symphony No. 6 in E minor, a work that bears a third movement as dramatic as anything ever to come out of England, and, thrown in for good measure, The Wasps Overture – a buzzing depiction of wasps behaving like politicians and vice versa, created for a student performance of Aristophanes’ comedy of the same title, written in 422 BC, some 2438 years ago.
And finally, there’s the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, sounding like pure gold in the Symphony No. 9 in E minor, with a third movement as compelling as that of Vaughn Williams Symphony No. 6. All these are live recordings dating back to 1957, 1958 and 1964, some coming from Promenade Concerts, all including applause and announcers’ voices.
For those for whom Vaughn Williams’ music is all about bucolic, pastoral quietude and little else I recommend they listen to the anguished sixth symphony of this composer. In 1949 Williams had taken the work to Buenos Aires after a 100-performance run on the other side of the ocean. At a press conference, an uninformed newspaperman asked the composer if a symphony inspired by the Second World War would mean anything to the people of Buenos Aires – a city that had not been bombed the way London had. Sargent undiplomatically answered that a city whose concert going public could not understand his symphony deserved to be bombed.
Rafael de Acha © 2022