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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Symphony no. 4 in F minor (1934)
Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 (1906)
Flos Campi (1925)
Paul Silverthorne, viola
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Paul Daniel.
Recorded March 2003 in The Concert Hall, Lighthouse, Poole, UK.
NAXOS 8.557276 [62.34]

The Fourth is the last of Vaughan Williams’ nine symphonies to appear on the Naxos label. Paul Daniel was the conductor on the recent recording of A Sea Symphony, also with Bournemouth forces, and the others were conducted by Kees Bakels. They are all successful performances and often rather more than that. The current recording falls into this latter category.

Vaughan Williams made disparaging comments about his Fourth Symphony, even going so far as to write, in a letter to Sir Henry Wood, that he didn’t like the work much. Reading Vaughan Williams on his own music is often a puzzle, however, and teasing out what he really thought can be a challenge. Two years after the first performance he went into the studio and conducted a recording himself, and he pondered over a single note for more than twenty years before finally changing it, so he must have thought the work had some merit. It is an extraordinarily concentrated piece, little more than half an hour in length – though it seems longer – and a good performance can leave the listener in a state close to shock even today. The slow movement is cold, distant and wanders like a precursor of the finale of the Sixth Symphony, and the scherzo is full of galumphing humour. But what one remembers most once the work is over is the tension, passion and – apparently – seething rage of the two outer movements.

Paul Daniel launches into the first movement in properly ferocious fashion and for the most part yields little to the best of rival versions. The only comparative disappointment comes early: the second subject of this first movement is one of Vaughan Williams’ most sublime tunes, and others have achieved violin playing of greater passion than we have here, and more importantly, have found more significance in the difficult accompanying repeated chords. The slow epilogue to this movement is particularly successful though, as is the slow movement, one of the most difficult Vaughan Williams nuts to crack. Daniel brings out both the menace and the wit of the scherzo, and the finale is a complete success, especially towards the end where, in Michael Kennedy’s evocative phrase, the music "reaches boiling point". The virtuosity of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra is never in doubt, the spot-on tuning of the winds being a particularly notable feature of the ensemble as recorded here.

Comparing this reading with the composer’s own is inevitable, and we must reluctantly admit that Vaughan Williams brings just a little more fire to his symphony that Paul Daniel can manage. Heat seems to feature largely in the imagery that comes to mind when talking about this work, and if it is possible for music that reaches boiling point to be played with white hot passion, then that is certainly what happens in the composer’s performance. But it was recorded in 1937, and good though the sound is for the period, it won’t do today as a single version of this remarkable work. This new recording certainly will, though we shouldn’t forget a number of other highly successful readings, including two by Boult, on Decca (mono) and later on EMI, Berglund, also on EMI, and, a particular favourite, Bernstein on Sony, whose violins sing their hearts out in that first movement tune.

Newcomers to the composer can safely purchase this disc for the symphony, then, and Vaughan Williams enthusiasts will acquire it in any case. They will also receive for their fiver an excellent reading of the Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1, evocative, passionate and lively by turns. But what makes the disc essential is the reading of Flos Campi. This work yields up its secrets only gradually, and secrets remain even in passages one pretends to understand. It is unlike any other work. The composer calls it a Suite, but this does it no justice. For solo viola, wordless chorus and small orchestra, each of the six movements is headed with a quotation from the Song of Solomon. We can only wonder about the link between these quotations and the music, and even more so about what these particular passages meant to the composer. There is an uncanny link with the text in terms both of time and place, and there are passages of almost unbearable beauty. This is the first performance I have heard to rival that of Nobuko Imai and Matthew Best, recorded by Hyperion in 1990. The Bournemouth Symphony Chorus sing wonderfully well, unanimous in attack, impeccable of tuning and totally at one with their conductor’s view of the work. The orchestra again plays beautifully, the important oboe solo so expressive, and one or two questionable balances apart – I feel sure Vaughan Williams wanted to hear rather more of the tabor, for example – a vivid and powerful recording. What sets this performance apart, however, is the extraordinarily eloquent playing of Paul Silverthorne. He communicates so readily that his instrument takes on an almost personal identity. He is a natural guide through this most elusive work. Sample the final section, Set me as a seal upon thine heart, a passage which in its mixture of radiance and ecstasy recalls the close of the Fifth Symphony, profoundly moving in this performance.

Production values are to the usually high Naxos standards, with sound descriptive notes from Keith Anderson, though I hope he will forgive my rather boringly taking issue with him about the folk songs used in the Norfolk Rhapsody. It’s a pleasure to see that Stuart Green, the viola soloist in the Norfolk Rhapsody, and the chorus master, Neville Creed, are both named on the back of the box. I can’t recommend this disc too highly.

William Hedley

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