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Vaughan Williams A London Symphony Sym. No. 2
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Vaughan Williams A London Symphony/Sym. No. 2
Andre Previn/London Symphony Orchestra

Vaughan Williams: A London Symphony

Vaughan Williams' A London Symphony [No. 2 in D Major] provides Andre Previn and the London Symphony a virtuoso, impressionistic work on a grand scale. In a program note in 1920, Vaughan Williams suggested that Symphony by a Londoner might be a better title.
The symphony is in four movements.

1. Lento Allegro risoluto

The symphony opens quietly, and after a few nocturnal bars, the Westminster chimes are heard, played on the harp. After a silent pause, the Allegro risoluto section, much of it triple forte, is vigorous and brisk, and the ensuing second subject, dominated by the wind and brass, evokes half-hour chimes in chromatic, short motifs. The LSO brass section enjoys every opportunity for brilliant display here. After a contrasting cantabile interlude scored for string sextet and harp, the vigorous themes return and bring the movement to a lively close, with full orchestra's playing fortissimo.

2. Lento

The chilly, fog-laden movement opens with muted strings playing ppp. Vaughan Williams said that the slow movement, a series of variations on three themes, intends to evoke "Bloomsbury Square on a November afternoon." Quiet themes led in turn by English horn, flute, trumpet and viola give way to a grave, impassioned forte section, after which the movement gradually flows into a wonderful coda nostalgically recalling each theme in turn.

3. Scherzo (Nocturne)

In the composer's words, "If the listener will imagine himself standing on Westminster Embankment at night, surrounded by the distant sounds of The Strand, with its great hotels on one side and the New Cut on the other, with its crowded streets and flaring lights, it may serve as a mood in which to listen to this movement." A Cockney sensibility reigns in this movement--perhaps influenced by Debussy's Fetes--which revolves around two scherzo themes, the first marked fugato and the second straightforward and lively. Imitations of piano and accordion announce a street party for the Trio. The piece closes with muted strings playing pppp.

4. Finale Andante con moto Maestoso alla marcia Allegro Lento Epilogue

The finale opens on a grave march theme in the cellos, punctuated with a boisterous allegro section, with full orchestra initially forte and appassionato. After the reappearance of the march--via a tamtam-capped climax--the main allegro theme of the first movement returns. Following this, the Westminster chimes strike again, this time at three quarters past the hour (played by harp), and there is a quiet Epilogue for London and British Empire asleep, inspired by the last chapter of the novel Tono-Bungay by H.G. Wells:
"The last great movement in the London Symphony in which the true scheme of the old order is altogether dwarfed and swallowed up... Light after light goes down. England and the Kingdom, Britain and the Empire, the old prides and the old devotions, glide abeam, astern, sink down upon the horizon, pass pass. The river passes London passes, England passes..."

The 1971 performance by Previn and his responsive LSO brings a resolute air of authenticity to this evocation of an imperial, imperious grandeur that by 1920 had faded into legend.

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