Classical VAUGHAN WILLIAMS SYMPHONY CYCLE Barbican Centre, London

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The Independent Culture
"The First Ever Complete Cycle" says the publicity for the Barbican's Vaughan Williams series. Impossible? Strangely, not: the fact is that, until Richard Hickox and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra took the initiative, no one had ever staged a concert cycle of the composer's nine symphonies.

Why now? Well, attitudes to VW have changed enormously over the last decade. The old modernist hauteur has all but expired, and composers such as Mark-Anthony Turnage, Steve Martland and even Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (once on the front row of the chorus of detractors) feel free to admire him in public, if selectively.

And it isn't only prominent musical intelligentniks whose mood has altered. Not so long ago, VW's symphonies were said to be "death at the box-office". The two symphonies in Hickox's first programme - A Sea Symphony (No 1) and Sinfonia Antartica (No 7) - aren't usually ranked among his very finest achievements; and yet they packed the Barbican Hall on Sunday, and the audience response was rapturous.

The performances certainly deserved it. In neither work do the symphonic currents run automatically; they need a little help - else too much of Antartica betrays its cinematic origins, and the thinner stretches in the Sea Symphony degenerate into dead water. But Hickox and the Bournemouth SO - plus the London Symphony Chorus in No 1 - showed that it only takes a very little help to make both works speak convincingly.

To take good cinematic ideas (and they are good cinematic ideas) and turn them into a convincing symphonic work is no small feat of imagination or technique - especially for a composer nearing 80 - but Antartica manages it. Just when you're thinking that a gesture or musical image is too corny - too suggestive of papier-mache icebergs and John Mills's frozen upper lip - Vaughan Williams manages an ingenious twist or beguiles the ear with some striking piece of scoring. One may prefer the purer symphonic arguments of No 6, or even the misunderstood No 9, but a mind that has reconciled itself to Strauss's Alpine Symphony should have no problems here.

What carries the Sea Symphony is the younger composer's identification with Walt Whitman's naive but invigorating poetry. The opening, with its still electrifying key-change at "Behold, the sea itself", is justly the work's most famous single moment. But the involvement of words and music in the finale is more significant. "Wherefore unsatisfied soul?" asks Whitman. Typically, he has an answer: "We too take ship, O Soul. Joyous we too launch out on trackless seas... Sail forth - steer for the deep waters only." On Sunday the music sailed forth with him. Hickox avoided dubious gravitas, ensuring that the music swept forward, urgent and unflagging. This, we were forcefully reminded, was the start of VW's symphonic adventure. It will be fascinating to see what the rest of this cycle tells us about works we thought we knew.

n Cycle continues Sat. Booking: 0171-638 8891