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Vaughan Williams’s 2nd Symphony: His First Home Run.

Originally posted to Medium on January 29, 2020.

While far from his most thematically complex, the Symphony No. 2 is his easiest symphony to start with and Andrew Manze nails this one home.

As I mentioned in my review of A Sea Symphony, the Spotify recording of Thomson’s 2nd has been screwed ten ways to Sunday for several years and is unlistenable. So for this I had to improvise, using Andrew Manze’s recording of the 2nd and James Judd’s recording of the Concerto Grosso.

Symphony No. 2 (A London Symphony)

The 2nd, more famously called the ‘London’, is one of RVW’s most popular works, and definitely most popular symphony. It, along with the Tallis and Greensleeves Fantasias and Lark Ascending, might be one the few RVW pieces one hears at all, if one strictly limits oneself’s classical input to public radio and Greatest Hits compilations.

The symphony opens with a musical portrait of a foggy morning: dim basses with a clarinet softly cutting through. The Westminster Quarters are sounded by the harp, and then the movement shifts to a busy morning on London’s streets. Trombones motoring along with rapid eighth notes, loud muted trumpet calls, and exuberant percussion convey the image of “Hampstead Heath on an August bank holiday”. After a quiet interlude, the busy streets return to bring the movement to an end.

The second movement, meant to evoke “Bloomsbury Square on a November afternoon”, is one of the best individual movements of any RVW symphony, rivaled only by, I’d say, 7.3, 6.2, and maybe 3.2*.

Fun fact: there’s a particular motif played by the clarinet and piccolo in this movement, specifically this one…

…that also appears in the Lothlorien movement of Johan de Meij’s Symphony No. 1, ‘Lord of the Rings’!

But back to the movement at hand. The largamente section, a sweeping English melody played by the strings and a few measures later by the whole orchestra, is peak Vaughan Williams and is absolutely breathtaking when executed nearly perfectly, as Manze does here. The cor anglais repeats the movement’s opening motif (supposedly based on the cries of a lavender seller) as the movement closes with a bassoon solo redolent of the last patron of a closing pub making his way home.

The third movement, labelled a nocturne (since it’s supposed to represent the busy evening) but functionally a scherzo, is played in a very fast 6/8, giving it a frantic feel that is distinctly different from 5.3 (which will be covered when I review that work). This has some of the most exciting moments in the symphony, including the last loud section of the movement that features some particularly thunderous low brass (and being a bass trombonist, that makes me happy).

The finale is dominated by a noble, determined theme that gets passed around, starting in the strings. Themes from the first movement make a reprise after the reappearance of the opening march. The Westminster Quarters strike again, and the Symphony No. 2 finishes off with a quiet epilogue which fades off, inspired by the close of HG Wells’ Tono-Bungay:

The last great movement in the London Symphony in which the true scheme of the old order is altogether dwarfed and swallowed up… Light after light goes down. England and the Kingdom, Britain and the Empire, the old prides and the old devotions, glide abeam, astern, sink down upon the horizon, pass — pass. The river passes — London passes, England passes.

Concerto Grosso

This work from 1950 is relatively non-descript and isn’t what I personally would’ve paired with this work. (In the Fen Country, the Tallis Fantasia, the Serenade to Music, and neither of the Norfolk Rhapsodies make it into this cycle, but the Concerto Grosso and Concerto Accademico do.)

The piece was written for a rural student string orchestra program and thus the orchestra is divided into three sections: advanced players, intermediate players, and novice players. It’s in five movements: a bold opening intrada, a burlesque, a sarabande, a scherzo, and a march followed by a complete reprise of the opening movement. It’s technically part of his pastoral works canon, even though 1950 Vaughan Williams has a distinctly different sound from the RVW of Fen Country and the Tallis Fantasia. It’s honestly hard for me to write much about this piece because I didn’t really have any thoughts about it post-listen, it was just…good, and that’s it.

Up next: the Symphony No. 3 ‘Pastoral’ and the Oboe Concerto.