The ones that nearly got away: Ralph Vaughan Williams, Symphony No. 2

[Ralph Vaughan Williams - Symphony No. 2]


Along with Yano Akiko, this recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 2 was one of five cassette tapes I held onto after giving up on the format more than 15 years ago. The CD reissue pictured adds a few pieces not included on my cassette.

It had been years since I listened to Vaughan Williams’ London Symphony by the time I was deciding whether to toss or to keep it. I remember enjoying the piece when I listened to it, but I wasn’t too swayed to upgrade it to a CD.

So it disappeared into a closet, then I forgot I even owned it.

I haven’t listened to anything else by Vaughan Williams. The only reason this album is even in my collection is because of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Michael Walsh’s biography, Andrew Lloyd Webber: His Life and Works, name-checked the London Symphony, stating the famous descending hook in The Phantom of the Opera was ripped off from Vaughan Williams.

Sure enough, the idyllic introduction of the first movement builds to an ominous descending chromatic line full of brass. The movement then turns into a Dvorakian meditation on British folk melodies. I probably wouldn’t be the first to say the symphony could also be nicknamed the Old World Symphony.

When I unearthed the Yano Akiko cassette from storage, I also revisited this piece, wondering if my opinion of it would change over time. Surprisingly enough, it hadn’t.

A London Symphony is a beautiful work — melodic, sumptuous. Thinking back, my precocious college music student self would have scoffed at a work with this much appeal, but it makes its argument to be heard and to be appreciated.

Lloyd Webber larceny aside, that chromatic line in the first movement is really a punch in the ear. The third movement scherzo ratchets up the folk dances of the English countryside to a dizzying pace, and with the big gestures of the final movement, Vaughan Williams shows Aaron Copland how it’s done in the motherland.

While I really like A London Symphony, it hasn’t quite spurred me to explore more of Vaughan Williams’ work. Sorry to say, A London Symphony is kind of like my Back in Black — the one piece I need from Vaughan Williams at the expense of everything else.

I eventually did upgrade the cassette to CD, finding a used copy in a serendipitous stroke alongside Yano Akiko.

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