A Comparative Survey of Recordings of Vaughan
Williams's Fifth Symphony
by Bill Hedley
Vaughan Williams, The Symphony and the Second World War
2022 survey update
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
Gibson's 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. It's 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
Gibson, 1982, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, (EMI)*
Handley, 1986, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Thomson, 1987, London Symphony Orchestra (Chandos)
Menuhin, 1987, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, (Virgin
Previn, 1988, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Telarc)
Slatkin, 1990, Philharmonia, (RCA)
Marriner, 1990, Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields,
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.
It's 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 conductor's 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 ' Barbirolli was himself
a cellist ' 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 Williams' 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
can't 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 work's third recording and it's
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.
It's 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 ' even more than in 1944 ' with which Barbirolli leads into
this coda. (Almost all conductors do this, however.) It's also true
that Barbirolli finds very little of the darker side of the music that
later conductor's 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 ' beautifully
played ' 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 conductor's 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 it's
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 Barbirolli's. However,
in Boult's 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 Barbirolli's
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.
I'm 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 Boult's
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: it's a formidable achievement.
At around forty minutes it's one of the longest recorded Fifths. The
Preludio is well under the composer's 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 Barbirolli's 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. It's 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 composer's indications.
And ' dare I say it? ' the slight whiff of Hollywood has been entirely
Compared to his years as director of the LSO, Previn's
period at the RPO was less successful and his remakes of his own standard
repertoire ' Shostakovich and Walton as well as Vaughan Williams ' 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 ' listen to the first movement Allegro ' and inevitably the woodwind
soloists, in spite of a superlative first clarinet, have neither the
poise nor the character of the old lags. Previn's 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
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 doesn't
open out as much as the playing at the climaxes.
It is an excellent performance. Rozhdestvensky's tempi,
though below the composer's 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
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
There's a very good Sancta Civitas on the disc
too. Don't hesitate if you see it in a second-hand shop.
The opening of Vernon Handley's 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 Elgar's 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 composer's 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
But that's enough exclamation marks! Let's 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 Menuhin's 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
composer's 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) it's 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
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 ' his two quavers are rushed ' 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.
Menuhin's 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 Williams' 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 I've 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 don't believe he succeeds here. Elsewhere,
especially in matters of tempo he is close to the composer's 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.
Marriner's reading was not particularly well received
in the musical press, but I found it communicative and well prepared,
with a particularly moving epilogue, and I'll certainly be returning
to it in the future.
I'm 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 doesn't 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 movement's 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
Davis' 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 Slatkin's case, this Romanza outstays
Bernard Haitink is a great conductor and I'm
delighted that he admires Vaughan Williams' 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 Haitink's 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 ' excellent
production values are to be found on this disc, and an exceptionally
beautiful recorded sound ' and is again extremely slow, monumental in
its effect, reflecting more than most, perhaps, Bunyan's "sepulchre".
Haitink is scrupulous in respecting the composer's 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 player's beautifully controlled final diminuendo.
Haitink makes of Vaughan Williams' 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 wouldn't 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 conductor's 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 composer's
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 compatriot's.
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 Bakels' 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 Williams' tempo markings, and the result
is certainly a Fifth which doesn't 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 Norrington's 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 Norrington's incidental
tempi in the Romanza surprising too ' the dancing bars really do dance
here ' 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 Williams' orchestration stripped to the bone, particularly in
the more triumphant passages of the finale. Norrington keeps the epilogue
moving too ' at this tempo it could easily be conducted in two beats
in a bar ' 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 Marriner's adjustment
at the end of the scherzo ' have you picked this up yet?) makes reference
to "Norrington's plentiful textual "tweakings"".
Now I don't know what he means by this ' who could? But if he means,
here too, wilful changes in the notes which Vaughan Williams wrote,
I solemnly swear that I can't hear any. His summary of this performance
is that "...poor old VW doesn't get much of a look in, I'm 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. It's a very concentrated reading
however and ends with a superbly long and controlled diminuendo. The
Scherzo and Passacaglia both go very well, with the Scherzo's 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 don't 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. It's not for me to make
recommendations, and in any case I know already that people whose opinions
I respect, not to mention some I don't, 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 wouldn't 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 didn't 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.
This paper first appeared in the Journal of the Ralph
Vaughan Williams Society
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