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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Symphony No. 4 in F minor (1935)
Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 in E minor (1906)
Flos Campi Ė Suite for viola, chorus and orchestra* (1925)
Paul Silverthorne* (viola)
Bournemouth Symphony Chorus* and Orchestra/Paul Daniel
Rec. The Lighthouse, Poole, March 2003. DDD
NAXOS 8.557276 [62:34]

Warning: check volume control before pressing "play". Such is the force with which the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra play the anguished first chord of Vaughan Williamsí Fourth Symphony. If you had been playing one of those occasional CDs which has a generally low dynamic level immediately before this one (and had therefore turned the volume control up), at the very least you would be in for a rude shock and maybe even some equipment damage. But do leave the volume control at a normal level because this is how it is meant to be. One should no more judge this Symphony by its first notes than Das Rheingold by Heda! Heda! Hedo! (as someone once famously suggested to John Culshaw) but itís a great start. Such ferocity is there whenever it is needed and the tension is maintained throughout Paul Danielís reading.

Vaughan Williamsí Fourth Symphony is a key work in his great and varied cycle. Completed in 1934, its dissonances shocked audiences because RVWís music wasnít supposed to be like that. It is a work to admire rather than love and the composer even said that he wasnít sure he liked it but then added that he meant it. Walton attended a rehearsal for the first performance at a time when he was struggling to complete his First Symphony and is reputed to have said to a friend, glumly, that he had just heard the greatest symphony since Beethoven. In four movements it is almost classical in form. Whilst there are moments of relative relaxation, the overall mood is profoundly disturbing and has led to suggestions that the composer was writing of the war which was beginning to loom; this he denied. The slow movement, placed second, is rarely loud but often as disturbing as the rest of the work and ends with a questioning cadenza on the flute. Apparently the composer went back years later and altered only the last note of this from F to E. The original can be heard on his own recording of 1937 but modern recordings, including this one, generally have the E.

It is worth dwelling for a moment on the recording which RVW conducted for two reasons. First, it is available in a marvellous transfer coupled with Barbirolliís 1944 recording of the Fifth Symphony on Dutton - an essential purchase for anyone interested in this composer. Secondly, because critical opinion has generally regarded this version as unsurpassed in its ferocity. Not perhaps any more. The composer adopted faster tempos in all four movements than Paul Daniel does here but both have inspired their orchestras to give everything, and there is an argument that the music is even more forceful at slightly slower speeds.

The impact of this recording is right at the top of the scale. Allied to tremendously well-played and committed orchestral performance is sound quality of stunning immediacy. The perspective is a close one - take your seat near the front of the stalls. Of course, there are other ways and, for a slightly less uncomfortable experience, Bernard Haitinkís resolute reading has much going for it. Interestingly, his timings are almost identical to Danielís in all four movements. Sir Adrian Boult conducted the first performance of this work and the composer credited Boult with showing him how the slow movement "should go". Two recordings by Boult are also available, the later of which, made in 1968 is, to my ears, markedly preferable in terms of both performance and sound. But, for now, this is the disc that will be going in my player whenever I need the kind of cathartic experience that hearing this work provides.

There are two fill-ups: the Norfolk Rhapsody No 1 and Flos Campi. Both have a pastoral feeling and they act as a suitable antidote to the symphony. These are also given fine performances with Daniel relatively fleet in tempi, notably in the march-like theme which bursts into the middle of the Rhapsody. The contributions of the viola soloist, Paul Silverthorne and wordless Bournemouth Symphony chorus in Flos Campi are excellent. This relatively extended work (20 minutes) is a substantial and unusual bonus.

These are times of plenty for lovers of RVWís music, at least on disc. Currently one can buy the whole of Bernard Haitinkís excellent series in modern sound for under £20 (much to the chagrin of collectors like me who forked out about three times as much not too long ago). Both Boult cycles are available cheaply and Previnís readings have just resurfaced at bargain price. Paying £5 for just one of the symphonies is beginning to look expensive. Never mind such relative considerations, in absolute terms this disc is worth every penny. Although it completes the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestraís cycle for Naxos, most of that has been conducted by Kees Bakels and previously only the Sea Symphony was under Paul Daniel. The 4th symphony can be regarded as the first part of a great trilogy. At the very least, Naxos should surely be getting Paul Daniel and the rest of the team who made this splendid disc back to record the 5th and 6th symphonies.

Patrick C Waller

see also review by William Hedley November Bargain of the Month

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