Bramwell Tovey in a Deeply-Felt Vaughan Williams Fourth

CanadaCanada Walton, Butterworth, Elgar and Vaughan Williams: Ariel Barnes (cello), Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Bramwell Tovey (conductor), Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver, BC, 4.10.2014. (GN)

Walton: Façade: Suite No. 2
Butterworth: The Banks of Green Willow
Elgar: Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85
Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 4 in F minor


This Vancouver Symphony Orchestra concert was seemingly in the same spirit as Prom 72 with Andrew Litton and the BBC Symphony that took place a few weeks ago, both having Vaughan Williams’ magnificent Fourth Symphony (1934) as their centerpiece. Performing this powerful work of course has become somewhat commonplace in the UK. Here it was certainly more of an occasion since the work has not had a performance for at least 30 years. Also featured was the solo debut of the VSO’s recently-appointed principal cellist, Ariel Barnes in the Elgar concerto, as well as shorter works by Walton and Butterworth.

Vaughan Williams’ Fourth is so vastly different from its symphonic predecessors that it has found a natural classification as the first of the composer’s great triad of ‘war symphonies.’ This is in spite of the fact that the composer himself denied any war inspiration, calling the work ‘absolute music’. Nonetheless, one can be easily confused by the composer’s comments if one listens to his benchmark (1937) recording—unequalled for its fire, fury and anger. Surely there must be something earthshaking going on here! Over a year ago, I did manage to see a performance by conductor/composer Ryan Wigglesworth and the London Philharmonic that was a pretty extreme attempt to remove all programmatic allusions and present the symphony simply as “one with a lot of interesting counterpoint”, to cite the conductor. But, while fast and brilliant, this interpretation struck me as cold and uninvolving.

Maestro Bramwell Tovey obviously feels this work deeply—its elemental power, its dignity, and its bleakness—and he coaxed a very convincing response out of the orchestra. Tempos were moderate but not much slower than the Boult/Handley tradition that many are used to. The variety of brass work was negotiated well, although at times I felt that this section could be even sharper and more pungent, and the strings showed strength and resiliency. The first movement had breadth and coherence, contrasting its brazen punctuations successfully with its quieter, enigmatic underpinnings. The latter took over more strongly in the following movement, the conductor providing sinew at first but then allowing a steady and concentrated descent into a more bleak and removed landscape. Some of the pungency of the wind playing and the withdrawn feeling in the strings actually took me to the icy terrains of the Sibelius Fourth Symphony, and I certainly had not felt that before.

 The remarkable Scherzo, where the music almost turns back against itself, provided just the right contrast, although here execution might have been more exact. Then, the great transition to the Finale (a parallel to the transition in Beethoven’s Fifth), here louder and faster than usual, almost pushing the audience into the passion of the last movement and then, through its many and varied protestations, transporting them to the famous closing timpani ‘thud’. The conception was really first-rate—not as craggy and uncompromising as some, but wonderfully purposive and full of conviction. Certainly, no one would leave this concert thinking that this work was anything other than a masterpiece.

Sometimes I do wonder whether Elgar’s Cello Concerto should be played early on in a cellist’s career. It is not a standard romantic cello concerto, yet there is a temptation to treat it as such. I have often seen young cellists try to place more expressive fervour into this work than its eloquent, refined foundations really allow. At the same time, they often fail to be sensitive enough in all the lovely passages of intimate musing. Ariel Barnes has an enviably rich and strong tone and obvious agility, and achieved considerable beauty at many points. But it frequently took the cellist a while to scale his expression exactly to the music. Thus, his opening was slightly too weighty and fulsome, impeding rhapsodic flow as the movement progressed. The rapt feeling both at the end of the heartfelt Adagio and at the end of the finale ended up almost exactly right though it seemed to take some time to get the feeling in place.

Perhaps the Adagio worked best, with both the first and last movements only a qualified success. The first had a few too many tepid moments with the orchestra sometimes inflated; the jaunty pace for most of the last movement also did not seem right, especially with some speeding up towards the end. In the finale, the cellist needed to find more composure as well as refinement in tone and shading. Nonetheless, a creditable journey for this talented young cellist even if this was unmistakably a work in progress.

Walton’s Façade Suite No. 2 and Butterworth’s Banks of Green Willow opened the concert in engaging fashion. But it was the Vaughan Williams that was the real story here.

Geoffrey Newman

Previously published in a slightly different form on

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