CBSO and John Wilson Vaughan Williams review

DAVID HART IS WONDERFULLY ENGAGED BY VAUGHAN WILLIAMS' PASTORAL SYMPHONY FROM JOHN WILSON AND THE CBSO


JOHN WILSON: A PASTORAL SYMPHONY
CBSO at Symphony Hall
*****
Unlike Beethoven's rustic japes, the Pastoral Symphony of Vaughan Williams is an intensely personal work, which views the English countryside through the prism of war (VW served as an ambulance driver on the battlefields of France) rather than a rural idyll. Slowly paced, with half formed themes and scarcely any dissonance, it's a bleak elegy with few comforts.
To be convincing it needs to be performed without any hint of excess, which happened in this wonderfully engaged account by John Wilson, whose fluid, neat beat always conveys what musicians want to see, namely precise direction rather than waving to the crowd.
Yet, despite the outstanding contributions of individual players, especially wind and brass principals, empowered (and comprehensively acknowledged) by Wilson, it was the totality of his reading – tempi, balance, phrasing and awareness of structure – that made the greatest impression. The fourth movement in particular, with an off-stage tenor soloist (the splendid James Way) far more suggestive of young lives sacrificed than the angelic soprano we usually hear, was almost unbearably poignant in its sense of tragic loss.
On a totally different level Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto offered a more traditional, and far less harrowing, experience of romantic expression. James Ehnes was the soloist, his long opening melody as sweet and elegant as bird-song, his Andante tonally intense yet never overdone (Emmet Byrne's opening oboe solo was just as rewarding), and his bow a blur in the 'moto perpetuo' finale's repeated-note patterns, all of them perfectly defined. Indeed, Ehnes's virtuosity was so riveting it almost overshadowed the CBSO and Wilson's equally sparkling support.
Copland's Appalachian Spring Suite sounded a bit pallid to begin with, but when the rhythmic gears clicked into place became as crisp and transparent as large-scale chamber music. And it was so well played I didn't even cringe when the 'Simple Gifts' variations wended their dreary way to the end.
David Hart

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