Sir John Barbirolli’s affinity with the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams was formed in his teens when he heard Gervase Elwes sing On Wenlock Edge. But it was from 1943, when he became conductor of the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester, that he developed into one of the composer’s favourite interpreters of the symphonies. Vaughan Williams described him as ‘one of those wizards who can take the dry bones of crotchets and quavers and breathe into them the breath of life’.
But closest to his heart, perhaps, was A London Symphony, partly because it is the most warmly and colourfully scored of the nine and also because it enshrines the Edwardian London in which Barbirolli spent his boyhood. No one who was fortunate enough to be present will ever forget the wonderful performance he conducted at the Cheltenham Festival in July 1958, a month before Vaughan Williams died. At the rehearsal that morning I heard RVW say to Barbirolli: ‘Do you know John, I wish I could score now like I scored then. I seemed to get a richer sound—don’t quite know how.’ On 2 May 1956, in Manchester, Barbirolli conducted the first performance of the Eighth Symphony in D minor.
The composer dedicated the work to him, and gave him the autograph full score, which he inscribed with the words, ‘For Glorious John, with love and admiration from Ralph’. Barbirolli had been rehearsing the work since the start of the year, and when Vaughan Williams went to Manchester in February to hear a play-through he found that the performance was already prepared. During rehearsals for the première, a friend commented on the effectiveness of the slight pause Barbirolli made after each of the variations in the first movement and suggested that they should be indicated in the score. ‘No,’ Vaughan Williams replied, ‘everyone else will make them too long. John does them just right, and how can I indicate what he does?’ The scoring of the Eighth may not have the Edwardian richness of A London Symphony but it has a kaleidoscopic brilliance remarkable as the work of an octogenarian. Although in some ways the slightest of the nine, the work is too easily underrated. The recording heard here was made a month after the first performance and therefore does not contain the extra cymbal clash which Vaughan Williams added to the first movement at a later date.
“Here's the genuine article - Vaughan Williams played idiomatically with flair, atmosphere and passion to spare.”
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