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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]

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The Naxos cycle of Vaughan Williams symphonies has been slowly unfolding for some years now, having started out in the hands of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Kees Bakels. Bakels drew some creditable performances from the Bournemouth without quite hitting the heights of his tough competition. As a result the earlier recordings in the cycle tend to be somewhat over-looked, despite their reasonable credibility.

It was in 2003 however, with two symphonies still to be recorded and Paul Daniel stepping forward to take the helm, that the cycle was suddenly thrust into the limelight with an outstandingly impressive Sea Symphony. Itís a recording that stands comparison with the very finest. As a consequence I came to this new recording of the Fourth Symphony with some anticipation and from the opening paragraphs it is immediately clear that Daniel does not intend to disappoint.

Rarely will you be hit between the eyes with an opening like this. Vaughan Williams was always quick to cast aside suggestions that this was a war symphony, yet the sheer savagery Daniel draws from the Bournemouth could leave no other impression. Daniel sets about the music with a ruthless sense of purpose, demonstrating an unerring grasp of the musicís tension. It makes for uneasy yet utterly compulsive listening. In response the Bournemouth players are nothing short of magnificent, as is Mike Clementsí stunningly engineered recording. The closing bars of the opening movement descend into an unsettling, tense peace that had me holding my breath in awe. Never has this music been more atmospherically captured. The same mastery of pacing is evident in the Andante Moderato that follows, the slow pizzicato tread of the lower strings beautifully judged. The riot of cross-rhythms that are the life blood of the scherzo are pulled off with glorious clarity, the central fugue deftly handled and the dynamics judged to perfection. In the Finale there are few, if any conductors who have dared to approach the frightening pace of VWís own recording of this work (a must-have performance available on Dutton). Paul Daniel shows no such reticence and his fourth movement sets off at an absolutely bristling pace. Danielís judgement once again yields spectacular results. For a fine example listen as the music comes back to life from around 4:00 or the demonic brass at 7:20, the final terrifying assault prior to a conclusion of shattering power.

I could not be without VWís own recording of this symphony, despite occasionally rough and ready orchestral playing, for its sheer energy and scintillating atmosphere. Thus far amongst modern recordings it has been Handley who has come closest to emulating this with the benefit of modern sound. Yet in Paul Daniel and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra we finally have a recording that draws all of these strands together. As such it shoots straight to the top of my list.

As if to emphasise the point and by sheer coincidence I found myself reviewing Andrew Davisís newly packaged boxed set of the VW symphonies on Warner Classics at the same time as this disc dropped on my doormat. If ever there was a stark comparison between two performances of the Fourth Symphony this is it. The uninspiring, characterless and lacklustre recording of the work by Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra had me thanking my lucky stars that I had the revelatory Daniel to look forward to whilst listening to it.

The disc is topped up with two more than worthwhile bonus works. In the final analysis Flos Campi may just lack the last ounce of ethereal atmosphere that marks out its closest rivals (Handley is superb once again here) but there is no denying Paul Danielís total command of the nuances of Vaughan Williamsí ecstatic score. The choral contributions from the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus are exceptional as is Paul Silverthorneís lucid and full-toned contribution as viola soloist. The Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 offers more of the same with luscious sounds from the strings and a palpable sense of stillness framing a rollicking central section that Daniel takes at a cracking and highly effective pace.

Rarely will you hear the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in finer form than this. The orchestraís principal conductor Marin Alsop has been doing sterling work since her arrival in Dorset and coupled with the energies of Daniel there is no doubt that this is an orchestra freshly invigorated. Naxos provides a recording of admirable clarity and dynamic range and once again I find myself marvelling at the value for money that this label provides at the top of its form. Recommended unreservedly.

Christopher Thomas

see also reviews by Patrick Waller and William Hedley

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