Vaughan Williams - A London Symphony

This is probably my favourite ‘modern’ symphony. It evokes the sound-world of Victorian era London as clearly as going back there in an HG Wells-built time machine.

The second symphony that RVW composed, it is (I think) the most approachable of his nine symphonies - although the Fifth is also very beautiful.

I got into the symphony, while at university, from a lovely EMI recording with John Barbirolli conducting (if I remember correctly) the London Symphony Orchestra - probably a Kingsway Hall recording.

After the symphony was first performed, Vaughan Williams was persuaded by friends and critics that (at about an hour in performance) it was too long. RVW duly cut much of it, reducing the playing time to a more manageable 40 minutes or so, and that is the version of the symphony that listeners came to love and expect.

But the late Richard Hickox was not convinced. He managed to unearth RVW’s original manuscript, and he was given permission by RVW’s widow Ursula to record the uncut symphony and give one concert performance.

Chandos Records recorded the original uncut score in a masterful account from Hickox.

It is available as a Chandos LP or CD, and I recommend it highly.

I have had it on CD for a while, but I have taken delivery of a new LP of the recording, so I shall make myself a cappuccino and go and give it a spin shortly. What fun!


Yes indeed, the Lento is meant to evoke Bloomsbury Square on a November afternoon. When I stay in Bloomsbury from time to time I walk around Tavistock Square and RVW has just got it right. I am still running in my ND555. I must play this symphony. I have Haitink on EMI and Handley on CFP.

I loved the first Hicox version, but I love VW’s original 1913 version even more. It’s an exquisite symphony, but then most of them are…I’ve tried for most of my life to “get” No. 1

The Vaughan Williams piece that many find ‘difficult’ is his Third (‘Pastoral’) Symphony.

Peter Warlock described it, famously, as ‘like a cow looking over a gate music’ - which I think is hilarious.

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Funny you should mention the Hickox/Chandos #2 Graham. I spotted the Vinyl version was available online and ordered it last week. Due to arrive tomorrow. Fingers crossed that Chandos have done a good job with it…

Yes, I got sidetracked defrosting the freezer, which had huge slabs of ice. I think that I shall try listening to the LP tomorrow now.

I hope that you enjoy it. It is a great performance and recording. But do treat yourself to the Barbirolli ‘standard’ version, if you ever come across it. It’s a very special record - one of the best things that Barbirolli ever did. (I think that it comes as a ‘twofer’ these days, coupled with Barbirolli’s equally recommendable RVW Fifth Symphony.)

The vinyl version of VW’s London Symphony with Richard Hickox is only on 2 sides… The first side is over 37 minutes which must mean compression of the dynamic range. The second side is over 30 minutes too. Why did they add George Butterworth’s ‘The Banks of Green Willow’ at an extra 6+ minutes to side one I don’t know. This long side length syndrome came in with DMM. Digital playback should for once be superior to analogue as end of side distortion and compression of dynamic range is not a problem.

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Qobuz has the 2nd in the Barbirolli version paired with the 8th.

RVW’s third symphony was actually described as “a truly splendid work” and “the best English music of this century” by ……… Peter Warlock! I think the cow over a gate remark was aimed at VW’s music in general.

In fact the symphony is inspired not by English landscapes, but the fields of France where VW served as a medical orderly in WW1. He wrote once of being inspired by a Corot-like sunset he witnessed there and the trumpet music was inspired by a bugler practising and hitting a wrong note.

It’s certainly one of VW’s more elusive pieces, best viewed IMO as the closest he came to a war requiem.



The 3rd is my favourite of the RVW symphonies. The “Pastoral” name does not help. Viewed as a war requiem, I find it incredibly powerful.


The nine Vaughan Williams symphonies as a whole do seem to be greatly underappreciated these days, despite wonderful older recordings from champions of his music such as Boult, Barbirolli, and Previn (surprisingly), and some newer, younger conductors now.

Perhaps RVW is due a re-evaluation now, which would be a great thing, as there is a lot of wonderful music to be heard.

I suppose it needs an effort from organisations such as the BBC and the Arts Council to give it all a kick up the bum.

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My impression is that RVW is more appreciated in the UK and the USA with our connections to folk and Tudor music from the UK and Ireland. Not sure how he is regarded in Europe with its classical tradition. Would be interested what non-UK members on this forum think about RVW?

The RVW Society was formed in 1994 and has done wonders to champion his music and release previously unrecorded works on their Albion label. Don’t think they need a kicking!

It is consistently excellent, in places disturbing and the Pastoral title is, I assume, an ironic and apt acknowledgment of what was lost to the war.

I think Eric Saylor in his new biography of RVW hits the nail on the head “…VW’s attempt to…transform the wartime trauma that he experienced into an expression of terrible beauty that might make a world full of loss…bearable once more”.


Having just listened to half of side 1, I can confirm that you are correct m100. Dynamic range is affected. It’s not terrible, but the effect is there. More importantly, my copy has ticks, pops, scratches and noisy, whooshing surfaces.
It will be going back for refund.

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There was quite a lot of VW’s music played last year, mainly, I suspect, because it was 150 years since his birth. The Hallé, for example, performed the complete symphony cycle.


I spent most of last year in a care home, so I missed that.

My VW go-to is Previn.

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Previn is very good, but Barbirolli’s EMI recording is very special. I think that Sir John was a Londoner by birth, and he appears to have a strong affinity to the symphony.

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