Opera + Classical Music Reviews

LSO/Davis @ Barbican Hall, London

24 September 2008

Any notion that Ralph Vaughan Williams is a composer entrenched in folk songs and whimsy was turned on its head by this superlative performance of his 4th Symphony.

Written in the 1930s, its violent evocation of the Great War, coupled with its portentous warnings of the horrors to come, came over with a force that took the breath away in this performance by Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra.

From the opening discord that explodes out of thin air, it was clear that here was a symphony of unrelenting power, a million miles away from The Lark Ascending and Greensleeves. The 4th Symphony is seen by many as the composer’s response to the suffering he witnessed first hand in WWI, and it takes the listener on a visceral journey without any hints of respite, balm or repose.

It’s relentless, disturbing and one of the most original scores written in the first half of the 20th Century. The sound world is not dissimilar to Shostakovich but whilst the Russian composer’s symphonies can sometimes sound glib and trite, there is no sense of the formulaic here. It is evident from the first bar to the last that Vaughan Williams poured his soul into this work and it showed in an unstinting performance by the LSO under Sir Colin Davis’ galvanising baton.

The playing was ferocious, voluminous and hard-driven not adjectives one would normally associate with Vaughan Williams, yet the overall effect was properly shattering. I was shell-shocked by the whole experience.

There was plenty of balm to be had in the ravishing account of Elgar’s Sea Pictures which concluded the first half of the concert, with Sarah Connolly as the ebullient soloist. Most mezzos have trouble with the low-lying tessitura of Sea Slumber Song and Connolly was no exception but she more than compensated for this with some glorious word-painting in Sabbath Morning at Sea.

The occasional sip of water between songs may have hinted at a slight indisposition but her voice took on a wonderful sense of gravitas in Where Corals Lie and she didn’t hold back on the emotion in the final song, The Swimmer. Sir Colin was an exemplary accompanist and the orchestral playing was opulent.

The opening item, Mozart’s Prague Symphony found Davis on his most mercurial form and once the violins overcame their slight hiatus in the opening theme, the whole symphony effervesced. The syncopation was deftly handled and having found Davis’ Mozart too big-boned and stodgy in the past, the lightness of touch took me by surprise. Long may Davis’ Indian summer continue!

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