Vaughan Williams’s second symphony, a portrait of London life inspired by HG Wells’s novel Tono-Bungay, was completed in 1913 and first performed the following year. In its original form, A London Symphony was a huge work lasting more than an hour, but over the next 20 years the composer revised and shortened it several times, until the definitive score, which eventually appeared in print in 1936, emerged—more than 15 minutes shorter than the original.
That final version of the symphony is the one usually performed today, but in 2001 the late Richard Hickox was given permission to conduct the original 1913 score for Chandos, on the strict understanding that it would never be performed in concert. It revealed how much of the music that Vaughan Williams would later excise was vividly pictorial, and that most of the cuts he made, particularly in the finale, tightened the symphonic structure and made it less episodic. Now Martyn Brabbins’s recording fills in a bit more of the history; he conducts the first revision, performed for the first time in 1918, and published two years later. By then, much of the major surgery on the score had been carried out; it clocks in at 51 minutes in the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s performance, with Brabbins’s fabulously assured reading generally favouring broad tempi, in the unaltered first movement especially.
The fill-ups are fascinating, too—early settings of Rossetti and Shakespeare for female voices (Elizabeth Watts, Mary Bevan and Kitty Whately) and orchestra, and the very late Variations for brass band—but there’s no suggestion that Brabbins’s disc is anything more than a one-off.