> Part 2: VAUGHAN WILLIAMS, the SYMPHONY and the SECOND WORLD WAR, Bill Hedley






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PART 2
Part 1

Perhaps a record company will one day be able to issue the private recording said to exist of Vaughan Williams conducting his own Fifth Symphony, but until then we must be content with the nineteen commercial recordings we have been able to identify. I have been listening to eighteen of them, having been unable to locate a copy of Alexander Gibsonís reading. Andrew Achenbach, writing in the Gramophone, referred to this as "...lacklustre, uncomfortably literal, at times even crude..." but Robin Barber, in the RVW Society Journal, said it was "...a well-played, glowing and satisfying account." If any member has a copy available, I should very much like to hear it.

A striking feature of the list is that of the nineteen recorded versions, no less than eleven form part of complete or, in the case of Boult/Belart, near-complete cycles. Itís wonderful to have such choice, yet hardly surprising that certain sectors of the classical record industry are struggling to maintain sales.

Those issues which seem to be currently unavailable are marked with a star.

Barbirolli, 1944, Hallé (Avid etc.)

Boult, 1953, London Philharmonic Orchestra (Belart)

Barbirolli, 1962, Hallé (EMI)

Boult, 1969, London Philharmonic Orchestra, (EMI)

Previn, 1971, London Symphony Orchestra (RCA)

Rozhdestvensky, 1980, BBC Symphony Orchestra (BBC Radio Classics)*

Gibson, 1982, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, (EMI)*

Handley, 1986, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (EMI)

Thomson, 1987, London Symphony Orchestra (Chandos)

Menuhin, 1987, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, (Virgin Classics)

Previn, 1988, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Telarc)

Slatkin, 1990, Philharmonia, (RCA)

Marriner, 1990, Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, (Collins)*

Davis, 1992, BBC Symphony Orchestra, (Teldec)

Haitink, 1994, London Philharmonic Orchestra (EMI)

Previn, 1995, Symphony Orchestra of the Curtis Institute of Music, (EMI, USA only)

Bakels, 1996, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, (Naxos)

Norrington, 1996, London Philharmonic Orchestra, (Decca)

Hickox, 1997, London Symphony Orchestra, (Chandos)

 

Vaughan Williams himself conducted the first public performance of his Fifth Symphony, but the first recording was made by John Barbirolli, in February 1944, barely eight months after he had more or less remade the Hallé Orchestra from scratch. Itís a celebrated performance, and rightly so. The first movement is full of that particular kind of passion Barbirolli so frequently brought to the music he conducted. Listen to the passage before and after the great modulation to E major, for example. The first movement Allegro is very fast, the ensemble is not immaculate, but the passage rises to a climax that reminds us of the conductorís prowess in Sibelius. The "tutta forza" passage is very broad indeed, and there is a big ritenuto at the resolution before the final coda.

The Scherzo is faster and more urgent than any subsequent reading, with some quite brilliant playing, particularly incisive brass, but the portamento playing in the cantabile passage before the end robs the music of some if its purity.

The Romanza is very slow and solemn, with little change in tempo for the main themes, but the cello solo Ė Barbirolli was himself a cellist Ė is brought well out. The animato is very fast and brings a real contrast.

The finale opens with a real smile, quite fast, one in a bar. When the bass trombone leads us to the climax of the movement the conductor allows us more than most to hear Vaughan Williamsí marvellous writing for this marvellous instrument. The coda is very beautiful, with Barbirolli squeezing the little crescendos to marvellous effect.

A magnificent performance, then, and an important historical document which should always be available. Whether one would listen to is for pleasure very often is another matter. The sound sometimes comes near to breaking up, and the quiet string lines in the first movement are particularly disappointing. It has been available in several different guises over the years, and I listened to it on the Avid label, but I canít think that others are likely to be superior. The grandeur of the performance is there, but experiencing it is not always comfortable.

Barbirolli re-recorded the symphony for EMI eighteen years later, still only the workís third recording and itís first in stereo. He takes a little more time now over every movement except the first, but even there serenity has taken the place of passion and the music communicates less urgently than before. The Scherzo is now less frenetic, closer to the "misterioso" the composer asks for, and the brassy fanfares are less incisive. The Romanza remains pretty consistent with the original reading, but the Philharmonia wind soloists are particularly fine, encouraged by the conductor to a rhythmic freedom which is extremely persuasive. In the finale the tempo changes are now closer to what we are accustomed to in later readings, within the context, once again, of an overall slower pace.

Itís true that compared to 1944 the newer reading seems to have taken on some weight. Only in the passage leading to the first movement coda, however, the passage marked "tutta forza", do I find the expressiveness excessive, in particular the very marked ritenuto Ė even more than in 1944 Ė with which Barbirolli leads into this coda. (Almost all conductors do this, however.) Itís also true that Barbirolli finds very little of the darker side of the music that later conductorís have done: the selfsame coda remains relatively warm in colour for example. And the end of the work is quite unequivocal: the string tone is wonderfully warm, with the solo cello Ė beautifully played Ė in the first paragraph at once prominent and perfectly integrated into the texture. The peculiar way that the final chords of the third and fourth movements resolve not quite together is pure Barbirolli, as are the groans he treats us to from time to time.

 

Like Barbirolli, Adrian Boult also recorded the Fifth Symphony twice, the first time in 1953. This, too, is one of the classics of the gramophone. Compared to Barbirolli the reading is straight, which does not mean straight-laced. Boult finds no less passion in the opening paragraphs of the Preludio, yet the whole thing is more restrained, the other extreme of Vaughan Williams performance. There is less lingering on individual details. Whether this is to be preferred is a matter of taste: there is more than enough room on the shelves for both approaches. What is certain, however, is that this movement demonstrates the conductorís wonderful mastery of pace and pulse. The music moves on, almost imperceptibly at times, but always with a clear purpose in view. The climax of the first movement Allegro section is particularly brilliant, and in the "tutta forza" passage Boult, surprisingly perhaps, moves the music on more impetuously than any other conductor, to quite sensational effect.

The same mastery of expression is found throughout the symphony. No conductor takes less time than Boult over the Romanza, but it remains of a piece with his view of the work. Only at the opening of the finale do I find his view of the music a bit literal, but itís difficult to say why, only that Barbirolli smiles whereas Boult sounds a bit sober. The brief clarinet phrase which launches the transition is superbly played, as is the flute music which follows, and the epilogue is a model of restraint and of devotion to the music and its composer.

By 1969 Boult had started to favour broader tempi, notably in the first two movements. In this respect there is a parallel between his two recorded versions and Barbirolliís. However, in Boultís case there does seem to be a lowering of the emotional temperature as well, which makes this version ultimately less satisfying compared to others. The first movement lacks much of the passion he found in his earlier version. There is less variety of pace, and the Allegro takes a dangerously long time to get going. At the climax of the movement, "tutta forza", he now broadens the tempo rather than pressing on as he did in 1953: a pity . There is a new bleakness in the coda. At the new, slower tempo the Scherzo sounds jaunty, lacking both Barbirolliís incisiveness and his own earlier "misterioso" qualities, and when the music passes to duple time it really does begin to feel too slow, and the bassoon and oboe at the end bring a further slight slackening. The Romanza is very beautiful indeed, but the beginning of the finale is again strangely literal, and the general tendency to broaden at climaxes continues as the first section comes to its close. The return of the first movement music sounds rather ponderous, and even the sublime epilogue is less affecting than usual, though this may be the result of the feeling of disappointment earlier. What is certain in that the "molto rit" in the final bars is less well managed than before.

Iím very conscious of the enormous presumption which allows me to make comments like these about one of the finest of Vaughan Williams conductors. Please, these are my personal reactions. No reader should turn down the opportunity to hear what were among Adrian Boultís last thoughts about the symphony.

André Previn recorded the first of his three versions of the Fifth Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1971. In common with many of my generation, it was from this recording that I got to know the Fifth, which was also one of the works which awoke my interest in the composer. It has rarely been out of the catalogue since its release, and deservedly so: itís a formidable achievement. At around forty minutes itís one of the longest recorded Fifths. The Preludio is well under the composerís marked speed but Previn establishes such a remarkable serenity that we are happy to go along with him. The Allegro is also very measured, the climax powerful rather than exciting and thus a world away from Barbirolliís first recording. The conductor encourages a singing tone from the violins in the coda, and the final bars are mysterious rather than bleak. The Scherzo is a whole minute longer than Barbirolli, and though tempo is not everything, this is far from presto. Again, though, we are convinced, and thanks to superb playing from the orchestra, the accompanying string quavers are indeed misterioso. We can really hear them at this tempo, and they have a significance which few other conductors achieve. The Romanza is likewise very slow, but extremely expressive and intense, with wonderful woodwind soloists. The opening of the finale brings relatively little smile at this tempo, rather literal in expression, but the solo bassoon stands out nicely in the (slightly) jazzy variation. The epilogue is beautifully played and very affecting, if less cool than is now the fashion. Rallentandos tend to arrive sooner than the composer asks, even at the very end of the symphony, to go on longer and be more extreme. The orchestral sound is rather glamorous, and I find that this element lingers in the mind almost as much as anything. Itís a remarkable performance, played an orchestra at the height of its powers, but in the light of more recent performances I believe there is more to the work than Previn finds here.

Seventeen years later Previn retains a very measured view of the symphony, but his tendency to linger and hold back is now less marked, and the reading as a whole is one of greater simplicity. He follows more closely the relatively few expression marks in the score, and on the rare occasions where he employs some license, such as the bar before figure eight in the finale, there is both logic and spontaneity about it. If the muted string quavers in the Scherzo lack the extraordinary accuracy and unanimity of the LSO, the playing of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is nonetheless of outstanding quality, with wonderfully reedy woodwinds in the Romanza. Two years after Handley, the news about the "mistake" in the timpani part seems not to have arrived in the Previn household. The epilogue is profoundly moving, again by virtue of simplicity of utterance and respect of the composerís indications. And Ė dare I say it? Ė the slight whiff of Hollywood has been entirely banished.

Compared to his years as director of the LSO, Previnís period at the RPO was less successful and his remakes of his own standard repertoire Ė Shostakovich and Walton as well as Vaughan Williams Ė were less favourably received. But I find him more in tune with the composer in 1988 than in 1971, and that, plus a recording of quite extraordinary richness and analytical quality, makes this one of my preferred versions of the Fifth Symphony.

Previn recorded the Fifth Symphony a third time some seven years later with the Orchestra of the Curtis Institute of Music at Philadelphia. He has worked with this student orchestra on a number of occasions, and has only praise for them. Their playing is quite outstanding, but next to professional groups the strings lack power Ė listen to the first movement Allegro Ė and inevitably the woodwind soloists, in spite of a superlative first clarinet, have neither the poise nor the character of the old lags. Previnís tempi have stayed very consistent, but where slow speeds in the past brought with them a remarkable concentration leading to serenity, all too often here the result is somnolent. I find this in particular in the very opening paragraphs of the work. Unsurprisingly, the student group is less successful in the rapid accompanying quavers in the first movement Allegro and in the Scherzo. More surprising is how often the conductor allows tension to sag dangerously. There are moments, too, where he seems not to have inspired his players sufficiently, the climax of the finale, for example, and the lead-in to the epilogue which follows it, with results which seem sometimes perfunctory.

By 1995 Previn seems to have been convinced by the arguments of those who say that the timpani are wrongly placed in the Romanza.

 

During his period at the head of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky gave many enterprising concerts of English music. He recorded the Fifth Symphony at the Royal Festival Hall in London in October 1980 at a concert to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the BBCSO. It is the only live performance on the list, and there are a few coughs from the audience and applause at the end. The recording is serviceable, though it is a pity that the sound doesnít open out as much as the playing at the climaxes.

It is an excellent performance. Rozhdestvenskyís tempi, though below the composerís markings in almost every case, seem consistently right, and he keeps the music moving at all times, even in slower passages. He accelerates during the first movement Allegro, in fact his reading is marked by many such features at moments where the passion of the music seems to demand it. They are all unmarked, of course, but they are very convincing, even endearing, and the music comes alive in a satisfying way.

The Scherzo is accented and bracing, though rather too loud, reflecting the live conditions. The Romanza is very beautiful, with good control of tempo, and a rallentando at the end of the third statement of the main theme, before the solo violin passage, which brings to the music a wistful quality I had not heard there before. The finale opens well, and the faster sections are really triumphant in feeling. The build-up to and return of the opening music is particularly well done, very dramatic, and the epilogue is autumnal, glowing, very slow yet slowing even more in the final bars: in short, extremely beautiful and moving.

Thereís a very good Sancta Civitas on the disc too. Donít hesitate if you see it in a second-hand shop.

 

The opening of Vernon Handleyís celebrated version has an ardent, yearning quality about it which is very attractive, but the price to pay is playing which is often rather too loud. The first violins at the first statement of the main theme of the first movement are not playing mezzo forte, for example, and there are even crescendos within it. That said, control of dynamics is very good: things happen when they should and Handley always leaves power in reserve for climaxes. He holds back only a little at "tutta forza" and the music is all the more effective for that, but he does pull back significantly at the climax a few bars later. The upper and lower strings are not perfectly together in the Allegro.

The Scherzo is very well done, extremely biting where necessary, and beautifully affectionate in the cantabile passage.

The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra cor anglais player is of the highest calibre at the opening of the Romanza, and if the movement rises to a less passionate climax than in some rival versions, the final pages, very simply expressed, very hushed, are magnificent.

The Passacaglia is genial and triumphant in its turn. I find the epilogue a little disappointing: slightly cool at the end with a hint of thinness in the high string tone that makes these final pages less affecting that in other versions. I note that not every one shares this view.

 

I only once had the pleasure of hearing the late Bryden Thomson in concert, conducting Elgarís First Symphony. It was the finest performance I have ever heard of the work, and I consider his reading of the Fifth to be on a similar level. If there is a criticism to make, it is that here too there is a lack of piano and pianissimo playing in the first movement: Thomson is at pains to make the violins sing in the earlier stages of the movement, and he certainly stands accused, and is found guilty, of disregarding the composerís markings. But what wonderfully seamless playing it is! And what power he unleashes in the first movement allegro! And what mystery he finds in the first movement coda!

But thatís enough exclamation marks! Letís listen instead how, though faster than many rivals, he contrives to open the Scherzo in the same world as the end of the first movement. The central section is very nervy, the trombones are superb. The brass is very strong throughout, with dramatic results, even in the faster sections of the Romanza. At the beginning of this movement the string chords are particularly carefully balanced: we hear very clearly the low thirds in the cellos. The more unruly sections of the finale again favour the brass; indeed, this is probably the weightiest recorded Fifth. Yet it is also one of the most human: at every turn this most self-effacing of conductors puts himself at the service of the music with the result that the warmth and humanity with which it is filled is constantly brought forward. It is one of my very favourite Fifths.

 

Yehudi Menuhinís is a very personal view, quite different in many details from most others. The first movement opens at what seems to me a near ideal tempo, though still slower than the composerís marking, and at a proper mezzo forte which brings with it a simplicity of expression which is very convincing. He refuses to linger, moving forward even slightly more in places, yet the beginning of the Allegro feels very measured indeed. He is clearly concerned to maintain the tempo here as the sound of his tapping foot is clearly audible. The tempo for the recapitulation is noticeably slower than before, and uniquely he plays the "tutta forza" bars exactly in time. I find this hugely effective and satisfying. What a pity then, for this listener at least, to spoil it all by pulling back so much twelve bars later to deliver a climax to the movement which is terribly inflated. The music then subsides again into the slowest coda on record, becoming even slower at it reaches its goal.

If I have concentrated on tempo, something which, in itself, is not always of crucial importance (compare Klemperer and Toscanini in Beethoven for example) itís because some of these decisions seem just right and spontaneous, whereas others, such as the slower tempo for the recapitulation and the coda, seem studied, pasted on, and therefore less convincing.

The other movements are less idiosyncratic, but the cor anglais player seems ill at ease at the very beginning of first solo in the Romanza Ė his two quavers are rushed Ė and throughout this movement Menuhin seems frightened to relax his grip in case the music seems to drag. When the first movement music returns in the finale it is at the second, slower speed, and the epilogue, also slow, seems in some curious way to be delivered one note at a time, the seamless legato achieved elsewhere seeming to escape these players on this occasion.

Menuhinís is a challenging interpretation, very well played and recorded, and everyone ought to hear it if they can.

 

Leonard Slatkin has given some remarkable Vaughan Williams performances over the years but his Fifth is a disappointment. Ironically, in many passages he is the conductor who most approaches Vaughan Williamsí marked tempos, but either a lack of flexibility, as in the Scherzo, or an apparent determination to let the music speak for itself, mean that much of what we have come to hear in the work goes for nothing. He finds no rapture in the Preludio, and even the Allegro rises to a climax with lots of bluster but little real power. The coda is simply perfunctory. Much the same can be said about the finale, where the playing seems sometimes forced, occasionally even crude, and with quite the most detached epilogue Iíve ever heard. Slatkin takes a more interventionist approach in the Romanza, his reading, with one exception, being the slowest on record. Unfortunately, this is how it feels: ponderous, heavy and grim, even funereal. During the second of the two woodwind passages the music seems on the point of grinding to a halt altogether. Slatkin is a fine conductor, and this was clearly what he wanted. All the same, by the side of his other Vaughan Williams discs, a superb Pastoral Symphony for example, this seems clinical and stylistically perverse.

 

Neville Marriner, in his 1990 recording for the now defunct Collins label, takes a few liberties with the score, modifying marked phrasing here and there, and even in one case, at the end of the Scherzo, a few notes. He makes one very curious tempo decision too, in the finale, where he takes the whole of the passage leading into the reprise of the first movement music at a funereal pace which makes the already difficult task of integrating the return of the first movement music all the more so. I donít believe he succeeds here. Elsewhere, especially in matters of tempo he is close to the composerís markings. Thus the Scherzo is taken at a near identical tempo to Slatkin, yet is more convincing thanks to greater flexibility of pulse and an altogether less aggressive attitude. The first movement conveys a calm inevitability which is very affecting, though which is slightly undermined by a frequent reluctance to count the two beats before the horn calls. The Romanza is particularly well done, with a good control of tempo. As for the contentious timpani passage, well, the player begins at the revised moment, but for some inexplicable reason becomes inaudible thereafter.

Marrinerís reading was not particularly well received in the musical press, but I found it communicative and well prepared, with a particularly moving epilogue, and Iíll certainly be returning to it in the future.

 

Iím a great admirer of Andrew Davis, especially in English and twentieth century music, so I was incredulous, not to have enjoyed his Fifth more than I did. The Passacaglia comes off best, very jolly and with an epilogue which almost turns into a sad procession, so slow, stately and dignified is its progress. The Preludio is very calm and pure at the outset, perhaps even a little understated, but it doesnít stay like that for long: weak beats are heavy, strong beats delayed, impeding the forward progress of the music just enough to transform it into something tired and sleepy. The Allegro section comes to life, with a real accelerando, but in the "tutta forza" passage and the movementís climax the tenutos and rallentandos are so extreme as to become, to my taste, intolerably grandiose. The Scherzo fares better, and in the song at the end Davis is more affectionate, more flexible and expressive than any other conductor. This too is a matter of taste, so having hoped for more freedom from all those who let this passage by with scarcely more than a nod, I was disappointed to find Davisí approach went too far. As for the Romanza, it is too slow, too dirge-like, with playing that does not compensate for it. There is little or no feeling of forward movement when the composer asks for it, so that, almost incredibly, as in Slatkinís case, this Romanza outstays its welcome.

 

Bernard Haitink is a great conductor and Iím delighted that he admires Vaughan Williamsí music enough to want to perform and record so much of it. That said, his version of the Fifth is not for those who know already how they want the piece to sound, because he challenges most preconceptions. His is a very dark reading, even grave. One way in which he achieves this is through tempo: at over forty-three minutes this is the slowest Fifth on record. Only Previn takes more time than Haitink in the first movement, but his view is serene rather than grave. Haitink displays even more freedom of tempo, even more tendency to ritenuto and rallentando, leading us across an important and imposing landscape at a pace which is emphatically not, may it be said, moderato. His Allegro is not fast either, but contrasts well with the preceding section all the same. There is little or no acceleration as he makes his way to a quite stunningly powerful central climax, followed by a "tutta forza" freer in tempo than usual and a climax held back in an extreme way which I would usually resist but which, perhaps perversely, I find totally convincing here, in the context of Haitinkís overall view of the movement.

Gravity there is in plenty in the Scherzo too, the little, frequently repeated melody in duple time especially so. At other times the music sounds like a nocturnal folk-dance. The "song of infinite longing" is exquisitely wistful.

The Romanza follows after a long pause Ė excellent production values are to be found on this disc, and an exceptionally beautiful recorded sound Ė and is again extremely slow, monumental in its effect, reflecting more than most, perhaps, Bunyanís "sepulchre". Haitink is scrupulous in respecting the composerís markings, except in matters of tempo, of course: listen, at the climax of the movement, how skilfully he reserves the real fortissimo for exactly the right moment, one bar before figure 10. The effect is as sensational as Vaughan Williams surely intended.

The Passacaglia opens in sunshine and progresses magnificently through its various landscapes before arriving at the return of the opening music with a stupendous inevitability. The epilogue is again grave, reflective, yet confident and full of hope. Never has the final rising clarinet scale been so audible nor so beautiful: we even hear the playerís beautifully controlled final diminuendo.

Haitink makes of Vaughan Williamsí Fifth Symphony a bigger piece than we are used to, with a certain Germanic grandeur which makes one think of Bruckner. It is an interpretation which will probably divide, has already divided, people. I wouldnít want to hear the Fifth like this every time, but in a concert I think one would not want to applaud at the end, but to sit on in silence. It remains only to say that the orchestra seems totally convinced by and committed to their former chief conductorís view of the piece. Their playing is a miracle of control and concentration. A great performance.

 

Kees Bakels, like Haitink, is Dutch, but his version for Naxos is as far removed from the previous one as could be imagined. Whilst just as scrupulous in his respect for the composerís markings, perhaps even more so, he is much closer to the marked tempi and the result is a Fifth which is not only much shorter but also less weighty than his compatriotís.

The Preludio is impeccably paced and executed, with a kind of rapture at the E major passage rarely achieved by a conductor who also respects the piano dynamic marking. My only quibble is the huge slowing up for the "tutta forza" passage: Haitink is the only conductor who convinces me of the merits of this. For the rest, the Scherzo is perhaps rather less individual, but the Romanza is very successful. The manner is very simple, and though the great climax is less overwhelming than elsewhere, the final bars rather dry-eyed, the movement as a whole is beautifully played and paced and all the more moving for it. Neither conductor nor orchestra seem as engaged by the first part of the finale as they are by the rest, and I found myself turning up the volume here in the search for more body to the sound. The recording favours the wind and brass at the expense of the strings, but only at the climax of the first movement Allegro did I feel a slight lack of weight in the string playing itself. On the other hand the timpani are surely too prominent throughout. The epilogue is very well paced and played, however, the mood beautifully caught and sustained.

If Bakelsí manner is essentially simple and straightforward, it is rarely plain, and if this were the only Fifth in your collection it would not disgrace itself there.

 

Along with Slatkin, Roger Norrington comes closest of all conductors to Vaughan Williamsí tempo markings, and the result is certainly a Fifth which doesnít linger. Add to this a few rather individual ideas about expression and the result may surprise some listeners.

The LPO violinists play their two opening phrases with a tone drained of life, and I would say that of all these conductors Norrington is the one who most subscribes to the ideas of bleakness and ambiguity exposed by Arnold Whittall and discussed earlier. But the E major section is ravishing, and the movement as a whole is extremely successful. A pity, I think, that he seems impatient with the bassoons when they take up the horn call in the bars before the development section.

The Scherzo is very fast, but the carefully controlled orchestral balance allied with playing of the utmost virtuosity ensure that the scurrying string quavers always mean something. The louder passages are very powerful, and I find Norringtonís way with the string song just before the end of the movement very moving, though some will find it an intrusion. The final bars are a little scrappy and might well have been retaken.

I imagine some will find certain of Norringtonís incidental tempi in the Romanza surprising too Ė the dancing bars really do dance here Ė but I find it all wonderfully convincing, and where something is marked in the score the performers always respect it. Norrington is less concerned about sheer beauty of sound than others have been, and in his striving for clarity we have the impression sometimes of Vaughan Williamsí orchestration stripped to the bone, particularly in the more triumphant passages of the finale. Norrington keeps the epilogue moving too Ė at this tempo it could easily be conducted in two beats in a bar Ė but the concentration and dedication of the players, the iron grip, the control of phrasing and dynamics, all this communicates a profound acceptance and contentment.

Andrew Achenbach, writing in the Gramophone (and to whose sharp ears I owe the discovery of Neville Marrinerís adjustment at the end of the scherzo Ė have you picked this up yet?) makes reference to "Norringtonís plentiful textual "tweakings"". Now I donít know what he means by this Ė who could? But if he means, here too, wilful changes in the notes which Vaughan Williams wrote, I solemnly swear that I canít hear any. His summary of this performance is that "...poor old VW doesnít get much of a look in, Iím afraid." This is tosh, of course, and might simply be dismissed as such if it were not so dangerous. If, after reading this kind of thing, a single person were put off investigating this deeply moving and often revelatory performance, it would, to say the least, be a pity.

 

The most recent recording, from Richard Hickox, is a reading which for me stubbornly refuses to add up to more than the sum of its parts. It is often extremely beautiful, but not totally convincing as an overall interpretation. Hickox is surprisingly free from the point of view of pulse, moving forward here, holding back there, and I think he goes so far in this that the basic pulse of the first movement is undermined. He is also subject to many of those ritenutos at the ends of sections which anyone who has had the courage to read this far will know I find easily resistible. The reading of the Romanza is consistent with this approach: the second time the main theme is presented is faster than the first. Itís a very concentrated reading however and ends with a superbly long and controlled diminuendo. The Scherzo and Passacaglia both go very well, with the Scherzoís cantabile passage presented in as beautiful a manner as any. But although the orchestra plays superbly well, I do sense a lack of fire in this version for which it is difficult to give examples and which is therefore difficult to justify. The return of the opening music in the finale seems to be one such place, though others may not find it so. And I donít feel the sense of a journey so much as I do in the finest versions, a journey in which the last notes of the epilogue are the only possible destination.

I presented this survey at the outset as a simple report of my reactions to the eighteen recorded performances of Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 5 I have been able to listen to. Itís not for me to make recommendations, and in any case I know already that people whose opinions I respect, not to mention some I donít, have reacted very differently to certain of these discs. All the same, my report would be incomplete without revealing my favourites.

Barbirolli (1944) and Boult (1953) should, for historic reasons, be in every Vaughan Williams collection. They are both searing performances too, but the rotten sound for Barbirolli is discouraging. The only versions I wouldnít choose to give as presents are Slatkin, Davis and Previn at Philadelphia, but I believe members would be happy with any one of the others. Of these, my personal favourites are Boult (1953); Barbirolli (1962), for Barbirolli; Rozhdestvensky, for an endearing directness and simplicity; Thomson, for his warmth, humanity and the beautiful sound he encourages from his magnificent orchestra; Previn (1988), for the simplicity of utterance he didnít find elsewhere; Haitink; and Norrington, for his steadfast and bright eyed optimism, a direct line, so it seems to me, from the composer. And the greatest of these, though probably not the safest, single library choice, is Haitink.

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Symphony No.5. Norfolk Rhapsody No.1 The Lark Ascending.
ORCHESTRA: London Philharmonic
CONDUCTOR: Bernard Haitink
ARTISTS: Sarah Chang

 

William Hedley,
France.
william.hedley@libertysurf.fr

 

SOURCES

Achenbach, Andrew, 2000, Vaughan Williamsís Fifth, The Gramophone, June 2000

Barber, Robin, 1998, Record Review, RVW Society Journal, No. 13

Frogley, Alan (ed.), 1996, Vaughan Williams Studies, Cambridge

Hedley, William, 2000, On Reading Arnold Whittallís Article on the Fifth Symphony, RVW Society Journal, No. 18

Kennedy, Michael, 1964, The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Clarendon, 1992

Kennedy, Michael, 1982, Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphony in D major, (preface to Eulenberg miniature score), Eulenberg.

Whittall, Arnold, 2000, The Fifth Symphony, a study of genesis and genre, RVW Society Journal, No. 17

Mellers, Wilfrid, 1989, Vaughan Williams and the Vision of Albion, Albion, 1997

Ottaway, Hugh, 1972, Vaughan Williams Symphonies, BBC

Vaughan Williams, Ralph, 1934, National Music and other essays, Clarendon 1996

Vaughan Williams, Ursula, 1964, RVW, a Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Oxford, 1988

 


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