The Ralph Vaughn Williams of the fourth and fifth symphonies featured in the ALTO (ALC1470) release with the composer’s name for its title is certainly neither the Ralph Vaughn Williams of the elegant Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, nor the ecstatic The Lark Ascending, nor the playfully buzzing Overture to The Wasps, nor the bucolic English Folk Song Suite, nor the melancholy Fantasia on Greensleeves, all five works each of which express the gentler feelings that for years one has come to associate with the aesthetic of one of England’s most important composers of concert music. In neither the fourth nor the fifth symphony do we hear a hint of Edwardian propriety or discreetly dispersed dissonance tempered by modally inspired melodies.

Instead, one finds in these two works penned between 1931 and 1943 an anguished undercurrent of atonal asperities. It was music written in a world forever changed by the horrors of World War One, the rise of the Stalins, Mussolinis, and Hitlers of the 1920’s and 1930’s, and the repeated devastation of World War Two, still being fought as Vaughn Williams completed the fifth of his nine symphonies.

No matter how much the composer denied it, the Symphony No. 4 in F Minor is musical cri de coeur brought about by the composer’s experiences on the battlefield in WWI. Other late 19th, early 20th century English composers – Elgar, Delius, Walton to name the three best known ones – were able to describe with their music the tragic and the sorrowful with a certain objectivity. Vaughn Williams gives the events of a world gone mad a potently gripping immediacy in his 1931 F Minor Fourth Symphony and perhaps in a more restrained, even resigned manner in his 1938-1943 Symphony No. 5 in D.

Sir Colin Davis leads the London Symphony Orchestra in a vibrantly angular reading of the Fourth, and The Academy of Saint-Martin-in-the-Fields is led by Sir Neville Marriner in an equally compelling performance of Vaughn Williams Fifth Symphony in D. As with many ALTO releases, Paul Arden Taylor does the masterful remastering.

Rafael de Acha © 2022

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