When Vernon Handley’s excellent cycle of the Vaughan
Williams symphonies first appeared in the late 1980s and early 1990s
it was a very good idea to couple the two E minor symphonies. The earlier
is a scorching masterpiece, the later a much misunderstood and underrated
coda to RVW’s symphonic canon. The original coupling now makes a most
welcome reappearance on the Classics for Pleasure label with the ‘Greensleeves’
fantasia added for good measure.
The Sixth is one of the finest of all British symphonies
and Handley and his Liverpool players give it a very fine performance.
It seems to me that his pacing of the first movement is adroitly judged,
allowing the compound time rhythms just enough time to breathe while
maintaining the correct degree of propulsion. The scoring is at its
fullest here and in the scherzo but plenty of inner detail is audible
thanks both to Handley’s careful balancing of textures and to the skill
of the engineers. Sensibly, there’s no wallowing in the ‘big tune’ (track
1, 6’08" onwards); RVW’s memorable melody is all the better for
being phrased naturally and tastefully.
Pacing is admirable, too, in the Moderato second movement
but here I admire even more Handley’s scrupulous control of both dynamics
and tension. Full marks also to the Liverpool players for their responsiveness.
The long build up to the central climax (beginning at track 2, 4’50")
is otherworldly in its self-imposed restraint and Handley screws up
the tension very gradually and patiently until the catharsis of the
triple climax is reached (from 7’21"). The climax is all the more
potent because it has been so skillfully prepared and the poignant coda
which follows is a foretaste of the desolate landscape we shall encounter
in the last movement.
The astringent scherzo is all garish bustle (the Vanity
Fair section of Pilgrim’s Progress is not far away). Here
the rhythms have real bite and all the varied orchestral textures, not
least the oily saxophone, are successfully realized.
The Epilogue is one of the most remarkable feats of
imagination in symphonic music. There is nothing else like it in all
Vaughan Williams’ output and in its remoteness it rivals Egdon Heath
by his great friend, Holst. RVW refuted the understandable contemporary
suggestions that in these pages he was depicting a nuclear wasteland
and averred that the movement was "pure" music. It is impertinent
to speculate what he might have "meant" but one can only wonder
at the creative impulses behind such a piece. Handley and his players
give a fine and sympathetic account of it. Once again, control is crucial
and is very much in evidence.
In 1957, ten years after completing the Sixth, RVW
finished what was to be his last symphony and for the second time he
cast a symphony in the key of E minor. In his accompanying notes Andrew
Achenbach rightly points out that in this work the composer builds on
the achievements of his previous two symphonies in terms of the development
and enrichment of his orchestral palette. Even in his mid eighties he
was still keenly seeking out fresh sonorities. In the Sixth symphony
(as in Job) he had employed a saxophone; in the Ninth he used
no fewer than three and also included a flügelhorn. (Is this the
first or, indeed, the only use of this instrument in a symphonic score?)
The music itself has often been described as ‘elusive’
and ‘visionary’. The themes are less immediately ear-catching than in
the Sixth (which is not to say they are inferior). It seems to me that
in the Ninth Vaughan Williams very deliberately used shorter themes
(cells, almost) but compensated, if that’s the right word, through even
greater use than usual of orchestral colour and contrasting blocks of
sound. Though he eschewed any programme it appears that the inspiration
for much of the work may have been derived from Wessex associations.
Specifically, these included Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles,
Salisbury Plain, Stonehenge, and the city of Salisbury itself. However,
this is emphatically not programme music, as Andrew Burn made clear
in his excellent notes accompanying the original issue of this recording.
It is worth quoting his comments for they seem to me to go to the heart
of the matter. "Philosophically the work explores the deepest issues
of human existence. It is as if the theme of man pitted against implacable
nature, which was explored in Sinfonia Antartica, is translated
here into the struggle between opposing forces that lie within the human
psyche. In addition it seems to be wrestling with the ultimate purpose
of mankind’s existence."
So, the symphony is emphatically not, as some have
said, a last, rather tired raking over old ground by an ageing man.
Rather, as Burn makes clear, this symphony is a formidable intellectual
challenge to the conductor. It is also very difficult to bring off musically,
not least in terms of balancing intelligently the vast orchestral forces.
Suffice it to say that Handley passes every test with flying colours.
This is a cogent account of the score, pregnant with atmosphere, and
it is delivered with great conviction. Moreover, the RLPO play the score
very well indeed.
The Ninth is still a rarity in the concert hall but
it has fared well on CD in recent years. Handley’s recording is as good
as any I have heard. His care for balance and his dynamic control are
exemplary throughout. I think he is especially successful in the mysterious
finale. On one level this is very different to the corresponding movement
in the Sixth; it is much more fully scored for one thing and it contains
a much greater range of dynamics and of orchestral colouring. However,
having the two works on the same disc shows, I think, that there is
quite a degree of kinship between the two finales. That of the Sixth
is hushed and withdrawn, its companion is craggy and forbidding. Yet
both surely describe inhospitable landscapes and potent spiritual forces.
Handley’s account of the last movement of the Sixth was glacial; here,
in the Ninth, there is, rightly, much more power and a granite grandeur.
I find him equally persuasive in both.
Anyone could buy this CD with complete confidence,
without any considerations of price. Both symphonies are finely played,
faithfully and understandingly conducted and both are recorded in excellent,
well-balanced sound. I admired and enjoyed this coupling greatly when
it first appeared and I am delighted to see these performances restored
to the catalogue.
other Handley Classics for Pleasure releases