When Vaughan Williamsí Symphony No. 5 was first performed
the world was very much at war, and contemporary audiences heard in
it, particularly in the light of its serene and radiant close, the composerís
view of how things would be when, as Adrian Boult expressed it, "this
madness was over". But they also heard, or thought they heard, an elderly
composerís farewell to the world, an eloquent and moving valedictory
statement. They could hardly have been more mistaken. Not only did he
confound them in his next symphony, perhaps the most enigmatic and disturbing
of the series, but he went on to compose three more still, the last
receiving its premiere in 1958, only four months before the composerís
When we look at this series of nine symphonies we are
struck by the lack of similarity between them. Even if the third and
fifth, say, seem to share some common features, Vaughan Williams set
out his thoughts in a different way each time, even when some or even
many of the actual thoughts are common to several works.
The first, A Sea Symphony of 1909 is a huge
choral symphony to words by Walt Whitman, a poet to whom Vaughan Williams
remained constant throughout his life. As well as being a picturesque
and spectacular evocation of the sea and of manís relationship with
it, the work is also a metaphor for the journey of the soul through
life and beyond, a theme which occupied the composer throughout his
The second, A London Symphony, was Vaughan Williamsí
favourite among his symphonies, and one which suffered more than most
from the composerís habit of continual revision. In its original form
it dates from 1913, but was extensively revised twice, the second time
as late as 1936. It opens mysteriously in a London fog through which
the chimes of Big Ben are heard. The major part of the first movement
is a lively evocation of the city, bustling, never still. The cry of
a lavender seller features in the slow movement, first played by the
composerís favourite solo violin. The scherzo is London by night, rapid,
muted music which later becomes something much more jaunty. With the
finale there is a change of mood, the opening a kind of cry. A slow,
march-like passage follows, and the climax of the music is strident,
even disillusioned, leading to a coda where Big Ben is heard again before
the lights go down, one by one, on the great city. Yet the atmosphere
is disturbed, mysterious, menacing. This is anything but a tranquil
close, the symphony anything but a picture postcard of the capital.
We shouldnít see the English countryside in A Pastoral
Symphony (1921) but that of Northern France where Vaughan Williams
served as an ambulance worker in the First World War. Nor should we
see only the countryside. It is a meditation both on the natural world
and on Vaughan Williamsí wartime experiences. No music evokes Wilfred
Owenís "pity of war" more successfully than this. It is profoundly sad,
even in the few faster passages, but not without hope; the music expresses
not the horror, but the loss, and with it, an immense sadness at the
waste and pointlessness of such loss, with a heavy heart, but with stoicism
also, and the very peculiar feeling that, even as we shake our heads
at the tragedy of it all, so we must turn to other things. It is a profoundly
satisfying work of art that deserves a place among the very finest of
The Fourth Symphony, completed in 1934, is launched
with the most grinding dissonances imaginable, a whole world away from
the Pastoral, and continues in that vein for more than half an
hour. Or rather thatís how we feel at the end of it. In fact the slow
movement, difficult as it is from the listenerís point of view, provides
contrast, though even there the atmosphere is hardly tranquil. The scherzo
is even humorous in places. But the finale drags us back by the scruff
of the neck and leaves us with the impression of a work of almost unrelieved
The Fifth Symphony (1943) is, once again, completely
different from its predecessor. Closely associated with Vaughan Williams
operatic project based on Bunyanís The Pilgrimís Progress, this
is a long, wise examination of what being human amounts to. The radiant
close is a testament to the composerís inherent optimism at what he
sees, perhaps in spite of what he sees, when he contemplates his fellows.
The Sixth (1947) begins in a strange sort of world
where lots of things happen but none of them seems to mean very much.
After a while the music is suddenly transformed by a wonderful melody
which seems to herald a new way, only to have, as it were, the door
slammed in its face by a return of the symphonyís opening gesture, as
potent a representation of hopelessness as I have ever heard. The middle
movements continue in this kind of vein, and then comes the finale,
where everything, even hopelessness, has gone, leaving "not a wrack
behind"; an empty, grey landscape where nothing lives nor ever will.
The music never rises above pianissimo and is played totally without
expression, an extraordinarily difficult task for the performers. The
work was interpreted by its earliest listeners as the composerís view
of the world after a nuclear conflict, but he always denied this, insisting
that he had written it like that simply because that was how it had
occurred to him. Listeners must make their own minds up on this.
The Sinfonia Antartica (1952) is a five movement
work including womenís voices, and uses much material Vaughan Williams
had composed for the film Scott of the Antarctic. One of the
workís themes, that of man battling against hostile natural forces in
order to find his place in the world, is to be found in the Sea Symphony
too. Each one of the five movements has a superscription marked in the
score. The finale is headed by an extract from Captain Scottís journal,
and is worth quoting in full, so typical is it of the composerís thinking,
and so clear an indication of the nature of this symphony and many of
his works: "I do not regret this journey; we took risks, we knew we
took them, things have come out against us, therefore we have no cause
The first performance of the Sinfonia Antartica
was conducted by Sir John Barbirolli, and the following symphony, No.
8 (1955) was dedicated to him. It is perhaps the least enigmatic of
the nine, less demanding of the listener than the others, from its first
movement variations without a theme, through the scherzo for wind instruments
only, its slow movement for strings and its rumbustious finale which
features (almost) every conceivable percussion instrument. Yet even
here, careful listening reveals darker thoughts hidden beneath the surface.
Nothing is darker than the ninth symphony of 1957,
related in theme to Hardy and Tess of the díUrbervilles, and
full of strange and new orchestral sounds, notably from a trio of saxophones.
Here we find the composer in the last months of his long life still
striving to express his ideas in a new and ever more cogent way.
Adrian Boult was a close friend of the composer and
one of his most trusted interpreters. He recorded all the symphonies
for EMI in the late sixties and the first eight, seven of them in mono,
for Decca, which is the series under review. The composer was frequently
present at these sessions, and that alone gives them a special authority.
These discs are issued on the Eloquence label in Australia, but are
available also from Belart in the UK, either as a set or separately.
They are true classics of the gramophone, having been available in many
different formats over the years Ė one of my earliest encounters with
Vaughan Williams was the London Symphony on the Ace of Clubs
label Ė and need little advocacy from me. Not one of these performances
is less than magnificent, and each would be among the first choices
were it not for the dated sound. It was of demonstration standard for
the period, but we have come to expect more than this now, and many
will not be satisfied with it, particularly in the extremes of register:
the violins above the stave frequently sound thin and unpleasantly brilliant
and the bass textures are muddy and ill defined. This information should
be treated with caution, however, for two reasons. First of all, because
the ear soon adjusts to the limitations, and secondly because the status
of the performances renders these discs indispensable. I can hear no
difference in the quality of sound between the Belart and the Eloquence
discs, which are well presented, with the same short introductory essay
for each disc followed by more specific information depending on the
works concerned. The complete text of the Sea Symphony disc is
provided, very much to this issueís advantage, and each disc carries
an image, Big Ben for the London Symphony, but more abstract
ones when the works demand it.
A fascinating exercise is to compare these readings
with Sir Adrianís EMI remakes. In general the older Boult took a little
more time over these works, and there is certainly a feeling that the
fire to be found in the Eloquence performances was less frequently stoked
in later years. Yet no collector should overlook them, if only because
they represent what one of the greatest Vaughan Williams interpreters
had to say about these pieces towards the end of his long life.
Turning to first of the Eloquence issues, the Sea
Symphony is perhaps the most immediately striking in terms of sound.
From the very opening both choir and orchestra have enormous presence,
though thereís no mistaking the age of the recording, and the soloists
are perfectly placed in the sound picture. The performance is a total
success, fizzing with energy and power, yet beautifully expressive and
restrained in the calmer passages. From the very opening the choir sings
with extraordinary fervour and the orchestra play their hearts out.
The soloists are outstanding too: how could it be otherwise? This would
be an easy first choice in better sound, particularly since no subsequent
conductor has quite matched Boult in urgency and passion. As it is every
collector should have it, but among the more recent issues perhaps the
most interesting is Haitink (EMI) with two excellent soloists in Felicity
Lott and Jonathan Summers. Haitinkís view is less urgent than Boultís,
more imposing, with slower speeds, and as with the whole of his fascinating
cycle he brings a new way of looking at Vaughan Williams symphonies.
The same characteristics of enormous energy and drive
are present in the London. Just listen how the different characters
swagger their way through the first movement! The despondent, disillusioned
aspects of the finale are very well communicated, and in particular
the extraordinary hollowness of the sound at that movementís climax.
I note that the curious surges in the sound that I remember from my
old LP copy are still present at this point, albeit reduced in the remastering.
Barbirolli (Dutton) is very special in this work, and Norrington (Decca)
is a personal favourite, but the most recent recording by Richard Hickox
on Chandos is a special case, in that he gives the symphony complete
in its original version. There is some fifteen minutes of "new" music
which, though extremely beautiful in itself, is interesting also because
the balance of the work, indeed its whole atmosphere is changed. In
its original form the London Symphony was a more sombre work
than we are used to, and all those interested in this composer who have
not already heard this version should certainly do so. Itís an excellent
performance too. Boultís performance on Eloquence is coupled with a
very good performance of the relatively little known Partita for
Double String Orchestra.
The Pastoral Symphony receives a most successful
performance from Boult. As the symphony approaches its close a huge,
anguished cry is heard from the strings in octaves which threatens to
break the bounds of expression, almost as if the composerís reaction
to what he sees before him becomes intolerable. Itís one of the more
remarkable moments in a remarkable work, and Boult rises to the challenge
magnificently, his orchestra producing playing at once hugely powerful
and moving. There have been many fine performances on disc in recent
years, and few disappointments. Norrington and Slatkin both number among
The Fourth is magnificently done, the conductor screwing
up the tension as the music rises, as Michael Kennedy has memorably
put it "to boiling point" and ends with a terrific bang. The orchestral
virtuosity is astonishing. Again, the only real reason to choose another
version over this one is the sound, and you could do much worse than
Bernstein (Sony), a surprising choice perhaps, until you think that
of all the Vaughan Williams symphonies, the Fourth is the one which
would inevitably attract that particular conductor.
The Fifth is very wise, a reading of great integrity.
This was only its second recording, and compared to Barbirolliís, which
preceded it, there is a certain restraint, as there is also when compared
to the first of a long series of modern recordings, that from Previn.
But time and again the listener is struck by the perfect sense of pace
and timing; transitions are masterly, and in the deeply moving final
pages one has the impression of a great musician totally at one with,
and at the service of, the composer. Among many magnificent Fifths the
most challenging is probably Haitinkís (EMI) though not everybody will
respond to it as positively as I do. Safer, and extremely beautiful,
is Bryden Thomson (Chandos).
All the qualities now familiar are present in Boultís
first recording of the Sixth symphony. Those in search of modern sound
are advised to seek out Andrew Davisís magnificent version (originally
Teldec) before it disappears altogether, but those who stick with Boult,
or buy his version as a supplement will be treated not only to a white
hot performance, but also to the short speech of appreciation the composer
made to the orchestra after the sessions: "Öand when I say "gentlemen"
I include the lady harpistÖ"
Boult conjures up the frozen landscapes of the Sinfonia
Antartica with all the mastery we have now come to expect. Later
conductors, even when they have brought a different and no less valid
view to this work, have not been able to surpass this original effort,
Haitink (EMI) in particular shows us a new way, but Handley (Eminence)
and particularly Kees Bakels (an outstanding bargain on Naxos, coupled
with an excellent Eighth symphony) are worthwhile alternatives. Some
recordings include the superscriptions marked into the score. On the
Boult recording they are movingly read by Sir John Gielgud, but whether
we want to hear them every time is another matter. Haitink omits them
altogether, and they are included as separate tracks on the Bakels disc,
an excellent solution.
The Eighth was the last of the series recorded for
Decca, though he did go on to record the Ninth for Everest. The present
recording from 1956 is the only one of those under review in stereo.
Boult really does have the measure of each of the many facets of this
work. Itís easy to overlook it, so straightforward does it appear at
first hearing, but Boult achieves a tenderness in the slow movement
and such high spirits elsewhere that his version is irresistible. Even
these qualities are surpassed, however, by the dedicatee, "Glorious
John", another of the classics of the gramophone that should be in every