> Vaughan Williams The Symphonies Boult (mono) [JH]: Classical CD Reviews- May2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958):

Symphony 1, "A Sea Symphony", with Isobel Baillie, soprano, John Cameron, baritone, London Philharmonic Choir, 450 144-2 [67.48]
Symphony 2, "A London Symphony"; Partita for Double String Orchestra, 461 008-2 [72.18]
Symphony 3, "A Pastoral Symphony", with Margaret Ritchie, soprano; Symphony 5 in D, 461 118-2 [72.16]
Symphony 4 in F minor; 6 in E minor, 461 117-2 [74.27]
Symphony 7, "Sinfonia Antartica", with Margaret Ritchie, soprano, and Sir John Gielgud, speaker, London Philharmonic Choir; Symphony 8 in D minor, 461 116-2 [73.22]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Boult
Recorded MONO 1952 - 1958
DECCA ELOQUENCE (AUSTRALIA) Symphony 1: 450 144-2
Symphony 2, 461 008-2
Symphony 3/ 5 461 118-2
Symphony 4/6 461 117-2
Symphony 7/8 in D minor, 461 116-2


When Vaughan Williamsí Symphony No. 5 was first performed the world was very much at war, and contemporary audiences heard in it, particularly in the light of its serene and radiant close, the composerís view of how things would be when, as Adrian Boult expressed it, "this madness was over". But they also heard, or thought they heard, an elderly composerís farewell to the world, an eloquent and moving valedictory statement. They could hardly have been more mistaken. Not only did he confound them in his next symphony, perhaps the most enigmatic and disturbing of the series, but he went on to compose three more still, the last receiving its premiere in 1958, only four months before the composerís death.

When we look at this series of nine symphonies we are struck by the lack of similarity between them. Even if the third and fifth, say, seem to share some common features, Vaughan Williams set out his thoughts in a different way each time, even when some or even many of the actual thoughts are common to several works.

The first, A Sea Symphony of 1909 is a huge choral symphony to words by Walt Whitman, a poet to whom Vaughan Williams remained constant throughout his life. As well as being a picturesque and spectacular evocation of the sea and of manís relationship with it, the work is also a metaphor for the journey of the soul through life and beyond, a theme which occupied the composer throughout his career.

The second, A London Symphony, was Vaughan Williamsí favourite among his symphonies, and one which suffered more than most from the composerís habit of continual revision. In its original form it dates from 1913, but was extensively revised twice, the second time as late as 1936. It opens mysteriously in a London fog through which the chimes of Big Ben are heard. The major part of the first movement is a lively evocation of the city, bustling, never still. The cry of a lavender seller features in the slow movement, first played by the composerís favourite solo violin. The scherzo is London by night, rapid, muted music which later becomes something much more jaunty. With the finale there is a change of mood, the opening a kind of cry. A slow, march-like passage follows, and the climax of the music is strident, even disillusioned, leading to a coda where Big Ben is heard again before the lights go down, one by one, on the great city. Yet the atmosphere is disturbed, mysterious, menacing. This is anything but a tranquil close, the symphony anything but a picture postcard of the capital.

We shouldnít see the English countryside in A Pastoral Symphony (1921) but that of Northern France where Vaughan Williams served as an ambulance worker in the First World War. Nor should we see only the countryside. It is a meditation both on the natural world and on Vaughan Williamsí wartime experiences. No music evokes Wilfred Owenís "pity of war" more successfully than this. It is profoundly sad, even in the few faster passages, but not without hope; the music expresses not the horror, but the loss, and with it, an immense sadness at the waste and pointlessness of such loss, with a heavy heart, but with stoicism also, and the very peculiar feeling that, even as we shake our heads at the tragedy of it all, so we must turn to other things. It is a profoundly satisfying work of art that deserves a place among the very finest of manís creations.

The Fourth Symphony, completed in 1934, is launched with the most grinding dissonances imaginable, a whole world away from the Pastoral, and continues in that vein for more than half an hour. Or rather thatís how we feel at the end of it. In fact the slow movement, difficult as it is from the listenerís point of view, provides contrast, though even there the atmosphere is hardly tranquil. The scherzo is even humorous in places. But the finale drags us back by the scruff of the neck and leaves us with the impression of a work of almost unrelieved violence.

The Fifth Symphony (1943) is, once again, completely different from its predecessor. Closely associated with Vaughan Williams operatic project based on Bunyanís The Pilgrimís Progress, this is a long, wise examination of what being human amounts to. The radiant close is a testament to the composerís inherent optimism at what he sees, perhaps in spite of what he sees, when he contemplates his fellows.

The Sixth (1947) begins in a strange sort of world where lots of things happen but none of them seems to mean very much. After a while the music is suddenly transformed by a wonderful melody which seems to herald a new way, only to have, as it were, the door slammed in its face by a return of the symphonyís opening gesture, as potent a representation of hopelessness as I have ever heard. The middle movements continue in this kind of vein, and then comes the finale, where everything, even hopelessness, has gone, leaving "not a wrack behind"; an empty, grey landscape where nothing lives nor ever will. The music never rises above pianissimo and is played totally without expression, an extraordinarily difficult task for the performers. The work was interpreted by its earliest listeners as the composerís view of the world after a nuclear conflict, but he always denied this, insisting that he had written it like that simply because that was how it had occurred to him. Listeners must make their own minds up on this.

The Sinfonia Antartica (1952) is a five movement work including womenís voices, and uses much material Vaughan Williams had composed for the film Scott of the Antarctic. One of the workís themes, that of man battling against hostile natural forces in order to find his place in the world, is to be found in the Sea Symphony too. Each one of the five movements has a superscription marked in the score. The finale is headed by an extract from Captain Scottís journal, and is worth quoting in full, so typical is it of the composerís thinking, and so clear an indication of the nature of this symphony and many of his works: "I do not regret this journey; we took risks, we knew we took them, things have come out against us, therefore we have no cause for complaint."

The first performance of the Sinfonia Antartica was conducted by Sir John Barbirolli, and the following symphony, No. 8 (1955) was dedicated to him. It is perhaps the least enigmatic of the nine, less demanding of the listener than the others, from its first movement variations without a theme, through the scherzo for wind instruments only, its slow movement for strings and its rumbustious finale which features (almost) every conceivable percussion instrument. Yet even here, careful listening reveals darker thoughts hidden beneath the surface.

Nothing is darker than the ninth symphony of 1957, related in theme to Hardy and Tess of the díUrbervilles, and full of strange and new orchestral sounds, notably from a trio of saxophones. Here we find the composer in the last months of his long life still striving to express his ideas in a new and ever more cogent way.

Adrian Boult was a close friend of the composer and one of his most trusted interpreters. He recorded all the symphonies for EMI in the late sixties and the first eight, seven of them in mono, for Decca, which is the series under review. The composer was frequently present at these sessions, and that alone gives them a special authority. These discs are issued on the Eloquence label in Australia, but are available also from Belart in the UK, either as a set or separately. They are true classics of the gramophone, having been available in many different formats over the years Ė one of my earliest encounters with Vaughan Williams was the London Symphony on the Ace of Clubs label Ė and need little advocacy from me. Not one of these performances is less than magnificent, and each would be among the first choices were it not for the dated sound. It was of demonstration standard for the period, but we have come to expect more than this now, and many will not be satisfied with it, particularly in the extremes of register: the violins above the stave frequently sound thin and unpleasantly brilliant and the bass textures are muddy and ill defined. This information should be treated with caution, however, for two reasons. First of all, because the ear soon adjusts to the limitations, and secondly because the status of the performances renders these discs indispensable. I can hear no difference in the quality of sound between the Belart and the Eloquence discs, which are well presented, with the same short introductory essay for each disc followed by more specific information depending on the works concerned. The complete text of the Sea Symphony disc is provided, very much to this issueís advantage, and each disc carries an image, Big Ben for the London Symphony, but more abstract ones when the works demand it.

A fascinating exercise is to compare these readings with Sir Adrianís EMI remakes. In general the older Boult took a little more time over these works, and there is certainly a feeling that the fire to be found in the Eloquence performances was less frequently stoked in later years. Yet no collector should overlook them, if only because they represent what one of the greatest Vaughan Williams interpreters had to say about these pieces towards the end of his long life.

Turning to first of the Eloquence issues, the Sea Symphony is perhaps the most immediately striking in terms of sound. From the very opening both choir and orchestra have enormous presence, though thereís no mistaking the age of the recording, and the soloists are perfectly placed in the sound picture. The performance is a total success, fizzing with energy and power, yet beautifully expressive and restrained in the calmer passages. From the very opening the choir sings with extraordinary fervour and the orchestra play their hearts out. The soloists are outstanding too: how could it be otherwise? This would be an easy first choice in better sound, particularly since no subsequent conductor has quite matched Boult in urgency and passion. As it is every collector should have it, but among the more recent issues perhaps the most interesting is Haitink (EMI) with two excellent soloists in Felicity Lott and Jonathan Summers. Haitinkís view is less urgent than Boultís, more imposing, with slower speeds, and as with the whole of his fascinating cycle he brings a new way of looking at Vaughan Williams symphonies.

The same characteristics of enormous energy and drive are present in the London. Just listen how the different characters swagger their way through the first movement! The despondent, disillusioned aspects of the finale are very well communicated, and in particular the extraordinary hollowness of the sound at that movementís climax. I note that the curious surges in the sound that I remember from my old LP copy are still present at this point, albeit reduced in the remastering. Barbirolli (Dutton) is very special in this work, and Norrington (Decca) is a personal favourite, but the most recent recording by Richard Hickox on Chandos is a special case, in that he gives the symphony complete in its original version. There is some fifteen minutes of "new" music which, though extremely beautiful in itself, is interesting also because the balance of the work, indeed its whole atmosphere is changed. In its original form the London Symphony was a more sombre work than we are used to, and all those interested in this composer who have not already heard this version should certainly do so. Itís an excellent performance too. Boultís performance on Eloquence is coupled with a very good performance of the relatively little known Partita for Double String Orchestra.

The Pastoral Symphony receives a most successful performance from Boult. As the symphony approaches its close a huge, anguished cry is heard from the strings in octaves which threatens to break the bounds of expression, almost as if the composerís reaction to what he sees before him becomes intolerable. Itís one of the more remarkable moments in a remarkable work, and Boult rises to the challenge magnificently, his orchestra producing playing at once hugely powerful and moving. There have been many fine performances on disc in recent years, and few disappointments. Norrington and Slatkin both number among my favourites.

The Fourth is magnificently done, the conductor screwing up the tension as the music rises, as Michael Kennedy has memorably put it "to boiling point" and ends with a terrific bang. The orchestral virtuosity is astonishing. Again, the only real reason to choose another version over this one is the sound, and you could do much worse than Bernstein (Sony), a surprising choice perhaps, until you think that of all the Vaughan Williams symphonies, the Fourth is the one which would inevitably attract that particular conductor.

The Fifth is very wise, a reading of great integrity. This was only its second recording, and compared to Barbirolliís, which preceded it, there is a certain restraint, as there is also when compared to the first of a long series of modern recordings, that from Previn. But time and again the listener is struck by the perfect sense of pace and timing; transitions are masterly, and in the deeply moving final pages one has the impression of a great musician totally at one with, and at the service of, the composer. Among many magnificent Fifths the most challenging is probably Haitinkís (EMI) though not everybody will respond to it as positively as I do. Safer, and extremely beautiful, is Bryden Thomson (Chandos).

All the qualities now familiar are present in Boultís first recording of the Sixth symphony. Those in search of modern sound are advised to seek out Andrew Davisís magnificent version (originally Teldec) before it disappears altogether, but those who stick with Boult, or buy his version as a supplement will be treated not only to a white hot performance, but also to the short speech of appreciation the composer made to the orchestra after the sessions: "Öand when I say "gentlemen" I include the lady harpistÖ"

Boult conjures up the frozen landscapes of the Sinfonia Antartica with all the mastery we have now come to expect. Later conductors, even when they have brought a different and no less valid view to this work, have not been able to surpass this original effort, Haitink (EMI) in particular shows us a new way, but Handley (Eminence) and particularly Kees Bakels (an outstanding bargain on Naxos, coupled with an excellent Eighth symphony) are worthwhile alternatives. Some recordings include the superscriptions marked into the score. On the Boult recording they are movingly read by Sir John Gielgud, but whether we want to hear them every time is another matter. Haitink omits them altogether, and they are included as separate tracks on the Bakels disc, an excellent solution.

The Eighth was the last of the series recorded for Decca, though he did go on to record the Ninth for Everest. The present recording from 1956 is the only one of those under review in stereo. Boult really does have the measure of each of the many facets of this work. Itís easy to overlook it, so straightforward does it appear at first hearing, but Boult achieves a tenderness in the slow movement and such high spirits elsewhere that his version is irresistible. Even these qualities are surpassed, however, by the dedicatee, "Glorious John", another of the classics of the gramophone that should be in every collection.

John Hedley




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