Sir Antonio Pappano’s latest recording with the London Symphony Orchestra features a pairing of Vaughan Williams symphonies that span the build-up and aftermath of the Second World War. Vaughan Williams: Symphonies Nos 4 & 6 will be released via the Orchestra’s LSO Live label on CD, download and for streaming on 16 April.

For years, I’d had my heart set on conducting the Fourth; its bewildering audacity knocked me off my feet when I first heard it. The fact that it was the only symphony the composer recorded himself added to the allure for me, as if there was some very deep secret in it, so painfully personal.

Post-World War 2, the strain of ‘getting on with it’ after such horrific happenings with so much loss did keep the UK united, but the personal reaction to these tumultuous events, especially from artists, was often less hopeful for the future than we would ideally imagine. Both the Fourth and Sixth Symphonies are angry pieces. No, the composer did not ‘explain’ these works in print. ‘Can’t a composer just write a piece of music…?’ So personal are these works that even studying them is a painful process, not only because of the complexity of the writing, but also because you quickly understand that you will eventually have to deal with something titanic. Are you up for it? Do you have the strength, the wisdom? Quite frightening, but also stimulating in the extreme.

This recording is taken from two separate concerts, the Fourth on 12 December 2019, the Sixth on 15 March 2020. Coincidentally, both dates were important dates in the UK calendar; the first was Election Day, the second the night before the announcement of the closure of all concert venues and theatres due to COVID 19. 

It’s often remarked in concert lore that on such and such a night there was a particularly electric atmosphere in the hall; I can attest to that being totally the case with these two concerts. The Fourth symphony and its tortured and conflictual nature somehow resonated with the political struggles of the country, but, importantly (for me at least), the music unhesitatingly defines the British character: courage, perseverance, action. This has nothing whatsoever to do with taking political sides, but only with the febrile sensations of performers and audience members in the hall that night.

I would say that to an even greater degree this was true of the March 2020 date. We somehow knew that a lockdown or a shutdown was coming, this knowledge or fear (!) inspiring the combined forces of the LSO to give their utmost, to hold a proverbial fist up to the insidious virus. Everyone felt it. 

Leading these two works has been a voyage of discovery, and has revealed to me just how timely (modern!) are Vaughan Williams’ passion, tenacity and deep understanding of humanity.

—   Sir Antonio Pappano