CLASSICAL MUSIC London Philharmonic SBC, London

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Future surveys of musical tastes and trends in the latter part of the 20th century will have to balance record sales most carefully against the programmes presented in our concert halls. The music of Vaughan Williams, for instance, has gone through a lean period since his death in 1958 to judge by the live concerts given by our symphony orchestras, but nearly all of his major works have been consistently available on disc, which must reflect a powerful need.

It may be that concert promoters are finally becoming aware of this odd dichotomy. Last year, Richard Hickox and the London Symphony Orchestra drew capacity crowds to what was claimed as the first complete cycle of the nine symphonies. Why had no one else ever thought to honour one of this century's greatest symphonic canons in this way?

Now, Roger Norrington and the London Philharmonic are performing three of the symphonies in a South Bank mini-series that has been built around music with London associations. Perhaps the tide is turning.

This orchestra was responsible, under an inspired Sir Adrian Boult, for the first complete recording of the symphonies in 1953, and a magnificent set it was. Now, under Norrington, today's players are proving equally committed to this marvellous music. Perhaps Norrington is not generally associated in people's minds with Vaughan Williams, but his readings of the Fifth Symphony last Friday and of the Fourth on Tuesday were deeply impressive.

No two symphonies by the same composer (Beethoven apart) can be said to traverse such contrasted emotional territories as these do. The indomitable strength of mind that made possible No 5's visionary calm and the tumultuous inventiveness and ability to envision new worlds in the angry No 4 never ceases to amaze, and Norrington and his players probed to the darkest and most radiant corners of these works to reveal their mysteries. Tempos were perfectly judged and sustained with flexibility and purpose, while the sound-world of each symphony drew richly sonorous playing.

Vaughan Williams's ability to extend and focus an expressive idea reaches its peak in the final pages of each work, achieving a heart-stopping radiance in No 5 and a bloody-minded determination to combine all the basic material in grinding counterpoint in No 4. Norrington rose to both these symphonic tours de force with true mettle, clinching the arguments in a way that uplifted and exhilarated his audience. If the intensity and emotional truth of his interpretations are captured in the recordings that are planned for next month, they will be most enthusiastically welcomed. They marked the high points in their respective concerts, but there were also fine performances of Britten's Serenade, with the tenor Maldwyn Davies, and of his Cello Symphony, with Robert Cohen in commanding form.

Symphony No5 is repeated Friday 7.30pm, RFH, SBC, London SE1 (0171-960 4242)

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