The ultimate London Symphony

The ultimate London Symphony


norman lebrecht

May 20, 2016

This week’s Lebrecht Album of the Week:

There has only ever been one live cycle of the Vaughan Williams symphonies – by the late Richard Hickox – and the recorded versions – Boult, Previn, Handley, Hickox, Slatkin, Paul Daniel – are not always distinguished by the best of British orchestral playing. So the heart soars – yes, lifts right out of its chamber and into summer skies – at the glorious first sound of two symphonies that herald a full new cycle….


Read on, here and here.


  • Peter Phillips says:

    Why do people always forget Bryden Thomson? I recall the LSO were pretty impressive in that cycle, better recorded than the one they did with Previn for RCA, though I still return to that one. BTW am I right in thinking that Hickox never quite completed his recorded cycle, also with the LSO? His live cycle was, I think, with the Bournemouth SO, no argument about their playing of VW for Kees Bakels. Also btw I’ve often wondered why Hickox never completed his cycle of the Arnold symphonies.

    • Ppellay says:

      Can’t corroborate this, but I suspect that Hickox was one of a number of conductors who had misgivings about Symphony 9, and therefore he wasn’t willing to commit himself to recording it. Which doesn’t explain why he didn’t do 7 or 8 either………..

    • SDG says:

      2 and 5 by Barbirolli – 2 with Halle on Pye; 5 with Philharmonia (just listen to strings in slow movement!)

      • Olassus says:

        Fine. But what about the other symphonies? I have wanted a complete set for years. A few months ago, I did some research. I learned that:

        1. Every cycle has serious flaws, artistically, never mind technically.

        2. The lack of consensus about who does what best is astounding.

        3. Buying individual discs these days at a brick-and-mortar store — and I live near a big one — is virtually impossible.

        Result: I still have only my Previn RPO No. 2. It’s much easier to build up the VW vocal collection!

  • MacroV says:

    I don’t know the Vaughan Williams symphonies as well as I should, though I really like the ones I know best – #s 1,4, and 5. I’m surprised orchestras around the world don’t do #1 more often – it’s an overwhelming experience (at least to sing it). One of my greatest concert experiences was hearing Elgar Howarth conduct the Seattle Symphony in #4 in the early 1990s.

    • John says:

      I agree with you about the Sea Symphony as a great work, but some of the choral writing, while excellent, demands a great choir, which could have something to do with few performances, in the US, at least. It’s also probably not great box office in the US.

      Another wonderful work from that period, Delius’ Mass of Life, is — I’m sure — almost never done on this side of the Atlantic. And much of the choral writing is even more difficult.

      • Ppellay says:

        For what it’s worth, VW’s Dona Nobis Pacem does enjoy some currency in certain corners of the US: Memphis will hear it in October courtesy of the Memphis Symphony – 3rd time it’s been done in this city alone in the last 4 years, I believe. Hodie is another VW work that pops up unexpectedly in the US from time to time, along with the Serenade to Music.

      • Peter Phillips says:

        As it happens, the last time the BBC’s “Building a Library” considered the Sea Symphony their top version was the one by Joel Levi and the Atlanta Symphony. Since Robert Shaw was there for so many years I imagine that they do indeed have great choir.

        • MWnyc says:

          Oh yes, they do. Generally considered the best symphonic choir in the US – and they’re not even paid.

          They’re quite proud of the fact that, more than once, when Donald Runnicles was conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, he insisted on flying them over rather than using a German choir.

        • Ppellay says:

          Actually, it’s Robert Spano conducting that performance, not Levi. And it is a terrific recording, by the way.

          • Peter Phillips says:

            Thanks for the correction. In an earlier post which seems to have got lost I mentioned the recorded cycle by Rozhdestvenski and the Moscow RSO on the Melodia label. Anybody heard it?

          • Gregor Tassie says:

            Rozhdestvensky’s live cycle recorded at the Leningrad Philharmonic Hall in the late 1980s is very good, perhaps the sole weakness is the vocal contributions, but generally the set is a good alternative. This conductor has grasped the nettle for Vaughan-Williams and his readings are well worth listening to.

    • Peter Phillips says:

      Agreed, especially about singing the Sea Symphony. There is, in fact, a complete cycle on cd by the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra under Rozhdestvenski. I’ve not heard it but it was quite well reviewed.

  • Bruce says:

    The Haitink/London Philharmonic set is not mentioned. Is that an oversight? …or not?

    (I don’t know if it’s good, just thought it strange that it wasn’t mentioned)

  • Halldor says:

    Wholeheartedly concur with Mr Lebrecht’s review, but where does he get this weird notion that VW’s a rarity in UK concert halls? There are two symphonic cycles under way at present (Liverpool and BBC SSO), there’s just been a magnificent production of Riders to the Sea in Birmingham, and I’ve heard live performances of the 5th Sym, Tallis Fantasia, Phantasy Quintet, and Toward the Unknown Region in the last 4 weeks. CBSO has announced the 5 Tudor Portraits and has In Windsor Forest coming up; Three Choirs is doing Dona Nobis Pacem.

    The Lark Ascending is in every popular classics concert, every choral society does the Sea Symphony and every youth orchestra plays the London Symphony and Folk Song Suite. Oh, and we had his hymn Sine Nomine (For All The Saints) at our wedding. That’s just off the top of my head! Hard to find? What a bizarre idea. Hard to avoid, I’m very glad to say!

    • Dave says:

      And the BBC Symphony Chorus (still in business despite the incompetence of its and R3’s management) performs Dona Nobis Pacem with the BBCSO at the Barbican this evening.

      (No mention of the BBCSO/Davis cycle above, by the way. There’s also a top-notch VW9 from that team in a Proms performance.)

  • Honeywell says:

    As a member of the orchestra playing in the recording that Norman linked, I’m very happy to see this first volume in Andrew Manze’s cycle so well appreciated. He makes this music fantastic. 3 and 4 are out next year and I think they will be really good too.

  • MacroV says:

    Can we expect a LSO/Sir Simon cycle when he starts his new job? (Actually, that would have been even more interesting in Berlin!)

  • Kevin Purcell says:

    Also, Halle with Sir Mark Elder recently released RVW #1 is superb.

  • Peter Phillips says:

    There are a few “live” performances around. I think that the NBC/Stokowski no 4 is live. There is a no6 by Boult and the BBCSO at a 1972 Prom. There are even a couple of Sargent concerts, one of the Sea Symphony at the RFH in 1965 with Elaine Blighton, John Cameron, the Christchurch (NZ) Harmonic Choir and the BBCSO – a rumbustious performance. And there is also apparently a London Symphony where Sargent is conducting the Chicago SO but it’s only available, if at all, as part of a large expensive equipment box. Barbirolli’s no8 with the NYPO is available as is, or was, his no6 with the BRSO. Curiosities certainly – but interesting curiosities.

  • Ben Cobley says:

    The Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra has just posted its recent version of the Symphony No. 5 with Andrew Davis on Youtube – it is seriously good

    As for cycles, I’m a big fan of the Slatkin for what he does with 3 and 4 especially.

  • Sandra Parr says:

    Totally respect the career of Richard Hickox – quite a force in the business. But really – he was not the only one to programme all the RVW symphonies in live concerts! Tod Handley did it here in Liverpool in the 1980s and recorded them all for EMI too. Currently Andrew Manze is doing the same in Liverpool – most of the Onyx recordings are now released (Sy 5 & 6 this week) and the cycle will be completed this September.

  • Lewis Brinin says:

    I am looking for a good recording of london symphony 1934 (1936?) Recordings dont list which of the many revisions this piece has had. I dont mind having multiple copies of any vaughan williams piece and may wind up also looking for Barbirolli LSO just because but my orchestra is doing 1934 so i need to hear it. Any recommendations?