Graham Rickson
February 2020

It makes good sense to couple Vaughan Williams’ 3rd and 4th symphonies on disc, the earlier work looking back to the composer's military service during World War 1, the latter's uncompromising angriness reflecting the turbulent mid-1930s. Not that Vaughan Williams gave any hints as to what No 4 was actually about, apart from gruffly admitting that he wasn’t sure if he liked it, and that ‘all I know is that it's what I wanted to do at the time.’ Martyn Brabbins’ account of the work is, perhaps, too beautiful, the work’s sharper edges smoothed over: the dissonant brass chords of the opening should grate more. But how marvellous the second subject sounds, the BBC Symphony strings wonderfully rich and secure. And the movement’s parched, soft coda is fantastic here, as is Daniel Pailthorpe’s lonely flute solo at the close of the slow movement. Brabbins seems more at home in the scherzo's trio than in the bitter outer movements, though he's superb in the lead in to the finale, Vaughan Williams paying explicit homage to Beethoven.

This ‘Pastoral’ Symphony is unequivocally excellent, however, the music’s ‘massive quietness’ genuinely disconcerting. Brabbins taps into the underlying melancholy, the work’s pale pastel colours enlivened by sporadic flashes of colour. Wind and brass solos are outstanding; the haunting horn and trumpet calls in the slow movement handsomely played. Four minutes or so in, and you should be blubbing. I was. Soprano Elizabeth Watts is magnificent in the slow finale. Exceptionally good, and handsomely recorded too. As a coupling, there's Brabbins’ orchestration of Saraband ‘Helen’, an unpublished cantata dating from 1913-1914 setting lines from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus; nine minutes of melting choral loveliness, the orchestra joined by tenor David Butt Philip and the BBC Symphony Chorus.