Vaughan Williams in the snow

James JollyTue 22nd December 2009
Snow over HertfordshireSnow over Hertfordshire

The drive to and from Gramophone Towers each day takes about 70 minutes – which is perfect for a CD each way. I rarely turn the engine off before the CD ends, so I can get through quite a lot of music over my three days in the office. The last week or so I’ve been having a personal Vaughan Williams symphony cycle. I grabbed the Bernard Haitink set as I hurried out one morning, and when I opened it found I’d tucked into the box the Real Great Composers interview I did on VW for Gramophone’s covermount disc with Richard Hickox. I must admit that I felt quite emotional as I pointed the car towards the M25.

Hickox’s premature death still leaves a hole in British musical life (particularly on record and in the byways of the repertoire), and I still find it hard to believe that he’s been gone over a year. And what’s even more sobering is I was only speaking to him about VW’s symphonies weeks before he died – Richard engaging, friendly, generous, charming and absolutely passionate about the music. By chance we’d both just finished reading Ursula VW’s biography of her husband and were singing its praises, saying how rare it is to get across that sense of ‘being there’, something she conveys superbly. (And of course she was actually only in VW’s life for exactly two of his more than eight decades, but she was clearly one of the catalysts for his amazing Indian Summer.) It’s such a shame that Hickox’s VW symphony cycle for Chandos was so cruelly curtailed (Hickox, incidentally, is the subject of Radio 3’s Afternoon on 3 this Christmas week).

The reason for my VW cycle was that I’d programmed A Sea Symphony into my first week of Classical Collections (BBC Radio 3, 10am to noon) in 2010. My theme is “Beginnings” and I wanted a first symphony that said, in no uncertain terms, “Here I am!”. And having already played Brahms’s First recently (the superb new Budapest Festival Orchestra recording on Channel Classics under Iván Fischer with, among many original ideas, its glorious use of portamento), I could think of no better entry into symphonic writing than VW’s wonderfully confident opening to his first symphony (VW was in his late thirties when A Sea Symphony was unveiled in 1908: a few years short of Brahms’s belated entry into the same waters.) I’m actually playing the Vernon Handley recording, but Haitink and Hickox are equally convincing – the form of the work which, though traditionally laid out in four movements, has a wonderfully ‘fantastic’ feel to it. And the end is almost as arresting as the opening – a kind of mirror image: piano to the opening’s fortissimo.

The other thing that sneaked into my mind as I drove along to VW’s orchestral music was a memory from early this year. I’d been invited to talk to the Cirencester Gramophone Society – it’s very much on home turf as I was brought up a few miles away from this beautiful Cotswold market town – and the audience is always attentive and enthusiastic…even when I had to point out that though VW immortalised Down Ampney (the village where he was born) as a hymn tune, he wasn’t really a country person. In fact, as soon as his first wife died, he and Ursula moved to about as Central London as you can get – Regent’s Park – and lived a life of metropolitan busyness. In the interval of my talk, in which I meandered through VW’s life via the symphonies, a lady came up and told how she’d been living in Manchester after the war, and had been at the world premiere of the Sinfonia antartica with the Hallé under Barbirolli. It’s things like that that make doing these talks worth while!

And as I opened the curtains this morning (and grabbed a quick photo) what should be my VW symphony of the day – that Sinfonia antartica. Listening to this remarkable panorama of cold, bleak nothingness amid a landscape whitened by snow seemed a much more appropriate experience than merely Dreaming of a White Christmas.

James Jolly

James Jolly is Gramophone's Editor-in-Chief. His blogs explore live and recorded music, as well as downloading and digital delivery.

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