Originally posted to Medium on January 28, 2020.
RVW’s debut symphony is a massive work that fails to deliver in the end, but Bryden Thomson makes a good show of it.
Ralph Vaughan Williams’s symphony cycle is probably my second favorite, next to Mahler. Bryden Thomson’s cycle with the LSO is my personal reference recording. It will be what I will be reviewing throughout this series, except for the Symphony No. 2, the recording of which on Spotify has been SNAFUed for years at this point.
Vaughan Williams wrote the Symphony No. 1 in his twenties. It’s the largest and longest of his symphonies, clocking in at about eighty minutes long. Titled A Sea Symphony, it features a large orchestra and a choir. Thomson’s recording is by itself, as this symphony usually is owing to its length. If I were going to pair this with another RVW work, I might say Three Portraits From the Age of Elizabeth, but I digress. The recording itself is serviceable so I’m going to focus on the music itself more rather than the performance.
The opening of the 1st is phenomenal, as is the opening of most of his symphonies. However, it becomes old by about five minutes in. He plays with some themes, but the only recurring one is the opening fanfare. It meanders from theme to theme. The second movement is an attempt at a nocturne movement, which kind of works, but again suffers from the same lack of overall cohesion of the first movement. The scherzo is a lot of fun and is my favorite movement of the piece. My favorite moment of the entire symphony is the celebratory descending melodic minor third in the choir. That interval will never fail to give me chills and RVW uses it a lot in his works. However, the fourth movement reprises the first movement in its inability to really find a solid identity.
The 1st finishes last in my rankings not purely because of it’s inability to find a melodic home — I do like the 7th, for Christ’s sake — but because so little of it is interesting. This is really the only symphony that I seriously struggled to make it through all the way, which I can’t say for many symphonies period. It’s not because RVW is a poor composer. Far from it. But it was clearly a learning experience for him and a trial run of sorts at the symphonic form. He called it a symphony and I’ll take his word for it, even though musicologists debate whether it’s a symphony, oratorio, or cantata.
The 2nd, however, is much better.