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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
The Nine Symphonies

A Sea Symphony* (1909) [65’43"]
Symphony No. 2 "A London Symphony" (1914) [46’20"]
A Pastoral Symphony (Symphony No. 3) ** (1921) [38’03"]
Symphony No. 4 in F Minor (1935) [33’58"]
Symphony No 5 in D (1943) [41’53"]
Symphony No. 6 in E Minor (1947) [34’25"]
Sinfonia Antartica (Symphony No. 7) *** (1952) [44’01"]
Symphony No. 8 in D Minor (1955) [28’34"]
Symphony No. 9 in E Minor (1958) [38’39"]
Concerto Accademico for Violin and Orchestra in D Minor**** (1925) [15’59"]
The Wasps: Overture (1909) [8’59"]
Three Portraits from "The England of Elizabeth" (Suite adapted by Muir Matheson) (1955) [17’26"]
Concerto for Bass Tuba and Orchestra in F Minor ***** (1954) [12’19"]
* Heather Harper (soprano); John Shirley-Quirk (baritone); London Symphony Chorus
** Heather Harper (soprano); William Bennett (flute); Roger Lord (oboe); Anthony Camden (cor anglais); Gervase de Peyer (clarinet); Anthony Halstead (horn); Osian Ellis (harp); John Georgiadis (violin); Alexander Taylor (viola); Douglas Cummings (cello)
*** Heather Harper (soprano); The Ambrosian Singers; Sir Ralph Richardson (speaker)
**** James Oliver Buswell IV (violin)
***** John Fletcher (bass tuba)
London Symphony Orchestra/André Previn
Recording dates and venues not given. Recording dates from other sources: Sea, 1970; London 1972, Concerto Accademico, 1969; Wasps, 1971; Pastoral, 1971; 4, 1969; 5, 1971; Three Portraits, 1968; Concerto for Tuba, 1971/2; 6, 1968; 9, 1971; Antartica, 1967; 8, 1968. London. ADD
Previously issued as RCA Gold Seal GD90500/01/03/06/08/10. Originally issued on LP 1968-1972.
BMG-RCA RED SEAL 82876-55708-2 [6 CDs: 65’43" + 71’18" + 72’13" + 72’16" + 73’09" + 73’ 02"]
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This splendid set of generously-filled CDs takes us back to the glory days of the partnership between André Previn and the LSO. At that time the partnership was as exciting as the subsequent alliance between Rattle and the CBSO. A whole series of fine recordings was made, initially principally for RCA and latterly for EMI Classics. The RCA recordings included some notable versions (including these). In addition, through a series of television broadcasts (not least his appearances with Morecambe and Wise - a UK comedy double act), Previn did much to popularise orchestral music with no dumbing down. He arrived like a breath of fresh air on the British music scene and rapidly became a highly-regarded figure.

One of the ways in which Previn won admiration was through his espousal of English music. I have never been entirely convinced by his Elgar but in this period at least he was one of the finest of all conductors of Walton and, as this set reminds us, a very considerable exponent of the music of Vaughan Williams.

Disc 1

The mighty Sea Symphony does sprawl a little but I’ve always found the big-hearted nature of the music irresistible. I’ve been lucky enough to sing in a number of performances of it over the years and it never fails to move and thrill. I don’t know the venue for this recording. I must say that it seemed just a fraction close to me. The sound, though very acceptable, doesn’t quite open up with the space and amplitude that the music needs. In particular I felt that the balance between choir and orchestra rather favoured the latter so that at the big climaxes the chorus doesn’t quite make the impact that it should. To my ears, at least, the choir is just a fraction more present on the fine versions by Sir Adrian Boult (1968) and Bernard Haitink (1989), both of which were recorded by EMI in Abbey Road, No. 1 studio.

Previn is extremely fortunate in having Heather Harper and John Shirley-Quirk as his soloists. Both are at the height of their very considerable powers here. Shirley-Quirk’s diction is admirably clear (as ever with this fine singer), he is spot-on rhythmically and the tone is lustrous and strong. Harper’s very first entry, "Flaunt out, O Sea" is not quite as commanding as I’d expected (Sheila Armstrong’s silvery projection for Boult here is especially memorable) and the reason is that Previn’s tempo at this point is just a tad too quick – mostly his sense of pace is unerring. Thereafter, Harper’s refulgent tone and sheer presence take over. Her singing is as deeply satisfying and idiomatic as that of Shirley-Quirk.

Shirley-Quirk is absolutely superb in the second movement, ‘On the beach at night, alone’. The movement glows darkly, with fine playing and singing from orchestra and chorus. The virtuoso scherzo has a real whiff of salt spray. The choir is splendidly incisive but they are a bit overwhelmed by the orchestra on occasions.

The vast, visionary finale can sprawl a bit, though I think it contains the best music. Previn’s control is masterly. He knows exactly where he’s going (I nearly said he’s mapped out his course carefully!) and I never felt there was any danger of the music losing its direction. In particular there’s no hint of wallowing in the great washes of sound. This is really generous music, full of heart. The chorus work is impressive but the soloists are even better. There’s a splendid urgency to their passage beginning "O, we can wait no longer" (Track 4, 12’12") and by the end of the performance I had no doubt that this distinguished pair are just about the best I’ve heard in this work (and there have been some pretty formidable pairings over the years, both in concert and on disc.) In summary, this is an excellent overall performance. It’s wholly convincing and leaves us in no doubt that Previn is well into the RVW idiom

Disc 2

If the first disc whetted my appetite for Previn in Vaughan Williams then this next disc certainly confirmed those initial favourable impressions. Indeed, the performance of the ‘London’ Symphony, perhaps my favourite of the whole canon, is one of the highlights of this set. Firstly, the recording itself is excellent. The sound is rich and wide-ranging. Secondly, the LSO, who played very well in Sea Symphony, perform supremely well here, displaying power and finesse in equal measure. I vividly recall going to hear Previn and the LSO play this very work in the St. George’s Hall, Bradford around the time that this recording appeared. It was a splendid occasion and I remember in particular that I was bowled over by the weight and intensity of the orchestra’s pianissimo playing. That attribute is amply on display here too. This is particularly the case in the Lento introduction and epilogue which open and close the work. Previn does the hustle and bustle of the main allegro of the first movement exceedingly well but the more reflective episodes (such as Track 1, 9’01" to 11’02") are also beautifully handled. The atmospheric slow movement is most sensitively played. There’s real poetry here but the big climax (track 2, from 7’17") is ardent. I admired the controlled way in which the music is allowed to subside from this point to the hushed close.

The quicksilver banter of the scherzo is brought off excellently. The finale opens with some really powerful, almost anguished music which the LSO delivers with tremendous power. Previn builds the slow march that follows most impressively. He brings out all the dash and vigour of the main allegro, which eventually achieves a towering climax before the quiet Q.E.D. of the epilogue. The very last, luminous chord is wonderful. It’s weighted perfectly and dies away to nothing. This may be a small point but it strikes me as the hallmark of a great orchestra on top of its form. Previn’s performance may not quite supplant Sir John Barbirolli’s supremely affectionate Hallé account from 1957 but it comes pretty close and, of course, it’s in much better sound. A fine achievement.

To complete the disc we have the Concerto Accademico and The Wasps overture. I must admit that the concerto never has struck me as top-drawer Vaughan Williams. It’s a bit on the dry side for my taste. However, James Oliver Buswell, recently heard to excellent effect in the concertos by Walter Piston (Naxos), is an effective soloist. He’s especially pleasing in the pastoral slow movement where he phrases warmly. The performance of The Wasps, originally issued with the Fifth Symphony, is splendid. It’s quite one of the best I’ve ever heard. Both playing and recording are on a par with the ‘London’ Symphony. I especially relished the thrilling way in which the accents, in which the piece abounds, are observed and used, as they should be, to give the music impetus: this is a really buzzing nest of wasps! The "big tune" flows naturally and glows splendidly.

Disc 3

Superficially there’s a great contrast between RVW’s Third and Fourth Symphonies, the one reflective, its successor turbulent. However, beneath the surface the harmonies of the ‘Pastoral’ are almost as restless as those of the Fourth, especially in the first movement, and the music is far from untroubled. The luminous transparency of the scoring of the ‘Pastoral’ surely reflects the fruits of RVW’s period of study with Ravel (1908). The sub-surface tension is the product of his experiences as an ambulance man in France (1916-18).

In the ‘Pastoral’ Previn clarifies all the textures immaculately, aided by supremely sensitive playing by the LSO. The second movement, Lento moderato, is marvellously etched – I’m a little surprised that the trumpeter who plays the "last post" cadenza (Track 2 from 4’23") is not credited as are all the other players with important solo parts. The rustic "galumphing" of the scherzo is splendidly realised, especially by the brass section. At the start of the finale Heather Harper is wonderfully ethereal and evocative. Her wordless singing ushers in a finale which contains a fair degree of passion as well as beauty and Previn delivers a fine reading with just the right amount of emotion. A very fine performance of the whole symphony is brought to a gentle, soaring close by Heather Harper, who sounds like a half-remembered folk singer in the distant meadows. Wonderful!

The huge power of the Fourth Symphony bursts over the listener like a tidal wave. By the time it appeared in 1935 storm clouds were gathering over Europe and the choleric tone of much of the music led to many listeners making the assumption that RVW was reflecting these troubled times in his music. However, as we are reminded in the liner notes, composition began back in 1931 when the political situation was much less uncertain. The composer himself rejected any suggestion of a political dimension to the piece and I suspect it may well have been a far more abstract work than some have claimed. There’s no denying, however, that along with Sancta Civitas (1925), Dona Nobis Pacem (1936), and the Sixth Symphony (1947) the Fourth is one of his most powerful utterances.

If Previn’s account of the ‘Pastoral’ was one of superfine sensitivity and refinement, much of this reading of the Fourth is, fittingly, about raw, rugged power with the LSO brass in particular, in trenchant form. There are, of course, passages of lyricism (e.g. the ardent violin line against throbbing brass chords in the first movement from Track 5, 5’26") and there are also reflective episodes, especially in the slow movement, and these are well done. For the most part, however, the temperature remains white hot.

Previn builds and controls the slow movement most impressively, emphasising the rugged strength of the music (and its creator?). The jagged scherzo snarls with menace and sardonic wit. The tense, pregnant link from scherzo to finale (RVW’s equivalent of Beethoven’s Fifth) bristles with barely suppressed energy, which is then unleashed in the volcanic finale. The playing here is superb but the brass are outstanding, as they need to be in this virtuoso test of orchestra and conductor. When the final defiant slam brings the symphony to an emphatic end the listener almost breathes a sigh of relief.

Previn may not quite match the white-hot, boiling 1937 recording of this tumultuous work by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under composer himself (who can?) but this is a very fine reading which is unlikely to disappoint.

Disc 4

The major offering is the seraphic Fifth Symphony. This is a supreme work, packed with thematic references to RVW’s opera (or ‘Morality’ as he called it), Pilgrim’s Progress, which at the time the symphony was written was still very much work in progress.

The long lines of the first movement are most lovingly shaped by Previn. The strings sing and soar marvellously and the horns contribute burnished tone. It seems to me that everything about the account of this movement, pacing, dynamic control and contrast, and sympathetic playing is just ‘right’. Later, when the tempo picks up the strings are dexterous and light and the interjections of the wind and brass introduce a suitable note of foreboding, which will be familiar to anyone who knows Pilgrim. The brief climax is convincingly built before the return of the luminous material with which the movement began (Track 1, 7’58")

The scherzo is brilliantly poised and gossamer light. This music always seems to me to be suggestive of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That’s certainly the case here. Then comes the glorious Romanza. A featherbed of hushed strings is the foundation for the beautiful melody, heard first on the cor anglais. In Pilgrim’s Progress (Act 1, scene 2) this theme movingly sets the words "He hath given me rest by His sorrow, and life by His death", sung by Pilgrim himself. This movement is, surely, one of the most moving creations in English music and Previn and the LSO do it full justice. The music, though beautiful, also has great inner strength and its glories are revealed here by some fabulously eloquent playing. If the performance of this symphony is a highlight of Previn’s cycle (which I believe it is) then the performance of this slow movement must be counted the pinnacle of the entire set. Here is just over twelve minutes of balm for the soul. Then the quietly radiant finale is a delight. This is RVW at his most outgoing and beneficent. The whole performance is a major achievement.

The Three Portraits from "The England of Elizabeth" consist of music extracted by Muir Matheson from a score that RVW had been invited to compose in 1955 by British Transport Films. The company had produced a short documentary about [16th century] Elizabethan England in order to promote tourism in Shakespeare country. Matheson’s three movement suite doesn’t contain vintage Vaughan Williams but it’s enjoyable and so far as I know there is no other recording.

The Tuba Concerto is a delightful piece, even if it too is not top-drawer RVW. As the notes point out the composer took a good deal of trouble to learn the capabilities of the tuba which he then exploited to the full. John Fletcher is a splendid soloist. He’s athletic in the outer movements and in the central Romanza he displays a poetic vein to the tuba which may surprise some listeners.

Disc 5

It’s an interesting idea to couple RVW’s two E minor symphonies on the same disc. I’ve always had a soft spot for Previn’s recording of the Sixth. It was the first recording I owned of the work (on LP, of course, coupled with the Eighth) and I acquired it around the time, in the late 1960s, that I learned the work from the inside by attending a weekend amateur orchestral workshop at which the subject for study was this symphony. (The workshop was authoritatively directed by Arthur Butterworth, whose excellent writings will be familiar to many Music Web visitors.) That weekend gave me an insight into what a complex and demanding score this is – not that you’d know that from listening to the virtuosity with which Previn and his players dispatch it.

The first movement benefits from excellent articulation, while the Big Tune (Track 1, 6’18") is beautifully judged – there’s a lovely weight and richness to the LSO strings here. The slow movement is full of menace and power and is very impressively controlled by Previn. The biting scherzo shows the virtuosity of the LSO at its considerable best. The desolate, subdued finale is fiendishly difficult to bring off – it reminds me of another bare musical landscape, Holst’s Egdon Heath. It’s well played here though I’m not entirely sure that the last ounce of hushed intensity is there. Nonetheless, returning to this performance of the symphony after some years I found it effective and convincing.

The Ninth is a strange work and has had a mixed press. One thing is for sure, even in his eighties RVW’s taste for experiment and his invention as an orchestrator were undiminished. Here he enriches the orchestral palette by adding a flügelhorn and a trio of saxophones to the scoring.

The first movement possesses a rugged power. The thematic material is not as strong as elsewhere in the RVW canon but the indomitable strength of the music can’t be denied. The very end of this movement, with its ghostly use of the saxophones, seems to evoke the bleakness of parts of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex. The second movement presents great contrasts. Rather malevolent rhythmic figures dominate the main part of the movement but the central section is more reflective, though still sounding somewhat troubled.

The quirky, malign quality that informs much of the scherzo (and which puts me in mind of the scherzo of number 6) is put across well. There are a few similarities with the Sixth too in parts of the finale, especially the very opening. Here is another gaunt landscape but this time the mood changes a bit before too long. Strength and a sense of purpose return, though even the lyrical passages contain more than a streak of melancholy. The potent final pages, which see the return of the upwardly striving motif with which the work began, lead to a most imaginatively scored close. A series of great full orchestral chords give way each time to washes of harp glissandi followed by plangent chords on the saxophones. It’s an extraordinary conclusion. What a way to sign off a symphonic career!

Previn is a sure-footed guide to this score and makes out a very convincing case for it, I think. It’s an unfairly underrated score of which we should hear more.

Disc 6

The largest work on this CD is the Sinfonia Antartica, a five-movement score put together by RVW from his fine, evocative score for the film, Scott of the Antarctic.

This performance, despite its many qualities, has one serious blemish. Each of the five movements is headed by a short superscription. Here these are read before each movement in question. I don’t know if RVW ever intended this to happen (and it doesn’t on the recording made not long after the première by Barbirolli, who gave the first performance.) I think it’s a misjudgement, even when the speaker is as notable as Sir Ralph Richardson, not least because it impedes the flow of the music. However, at least with CD the listener can choose to programme these bits out, for at least they are separately tracked.

The implacable grandeur of the Arctic landscape is a major feature of this score and Previn and his players are very successful at conveying this. This score is another example of RVW’s mastery of orchestral scoring (try the glacial shimmerings at track 2, 3’11" with the slow bass stirrings underneath, brilliantly suggestive of the slow, inexorable stirrings of the polar ice cap.) The LSO rises brilliantly to all the challenges of the scoring.

There’s one major disappointment. This occurs in the awesome central movement, ‘Landscape’, where the music eventually rises to a terrifying climax, crowned by full organ, a moment reminiscent of the literally dreadful moment in Job where Satan is seen sitting on the throne of God.. Here, unfortunately, the instrument is a weedy electronic effort which makes no impact at all. One turns to Haitink’s magisterial digital recording (1985) with relief. Here the full panoply of a large church organ is heard and even if the organ is probably dubbed (no recording venue is given in the Haitink liner notes) it’s still much more satisfying than RCA’s poor effort.

There are suitably atmospheric contributions from Heather Harper (again) and the ladies of the Ambrosian Singers in the outer movements. This is the one symphony of the nine over which I have reservations. The music is superbly atmospheric but does it really work as a symphony? That said, Previn and the LSO do it very well and the recorded sound, if not in the class of Haitink’s digital sound, is still very good indeed.

The Eighth is a much lighter affair than some of its companions, though not a lightweight. The first movement, which RVW dubbed ‘variations without a theme’, are good humoured and resourceful and Previn presents the music very well. The perky, witty scherzo, scored for wind and brass only, is crisply and impishly delivered. The strings relish the lovely Cavatina, as they should. This movement, scored for strings alone, is typical of the composer’s understanding, eloquent writing for strings. The music is in the finest tradition of English string writing, a tradition that Vaughan Williams did so much to foster.

Everyone has a great deal of fun in the concluding toccata, not least the five percussion players who are required in order to play "all the ’phones and ’spiels known to the composer", as RVW engagingly put it. Though this was not his final symphonic utterance this is the last music that you will hear if you play through the CDs in order and this jovial movement is an exuberant end to this set.


I’m usually wary of recommending a symphonic cycle by one conductor and it must be said that there are many fine performances of each of these symphonies by rival conductors. Vernon Handley in particular and Boult as well have much to offer while Haitink and Barbirolli have both made some fine recordings. However, I’ve been most impressed by this set. Previn clearly steeped himself in this music and he is a very reliable guide. The LSO play very well indeed throughout and in the ‘London’, ‘Pastoral’ and Fifth symphonies, their playing is peerless. Interestingly, the recorded sound, which is never less than fully satisfactory, is also best of all in these three works. It may be significant that, to the best of my recollection, these three were among the last to be recorded by the team. It’s a pity that the otherwise very good documentation omits any mention of recording dates or venues.

There’s a generous booklet with comprehensive and good (though anonymous) notes in English, French and German and the text of Sea Symphony is given in all three languages too.

If you’re looking for a first class set of the Vaughan Williams symphonies you won’t go far wrong here. Even if you already have all or most of the symphonies in other versions it’s very well worth adding Previn’s excellent and remarkably even cycle to your collection at the modest asking price.

There’s some wonderful, life-enhancing music here. I enjoyed this set enormously from start to finish and would rate it as one of Previn’s finest achievements in the recording studio. I recommend these CDs with great enthusiasm.

John Quinn

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