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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
The Nine Symphonies

A Sea Symphony (Symphony No. 1) (1909)
Symphony No. 2 A London Symphony (1913)
Symphony No. 8 in D minor (1955)
Symphony No. 4 in F minor (1931)
Symphony No. 5 in D major (1943)
Symphony No. 6 in E minor (1944)
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910)
The Lark Ascending (1921)
Fantasia on Greensleeves (1934)
Overture Ė The Wasps (1909)
Sinfonia Antartica (Symphony No. 7) (1952)
A Pastoral Symphony (Symphony No. 3) (1921)
Symphony No. 9 in E minor (1956-58)
Job Ė A Masque for Dancing (1930)
Amanda Roocroft (soprano); Thomas Hampson (baritone)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
Rec. St. Augustineís Church, London October 1990 (No. 6, Tallis Fantasia, Lark Ascending) December 1992 (Nos. 4 and 5) March 1993 (Nos. 2 and 8) April 1995 (No. 9, Job) March 1996 (Nos. 3 and 7) Blackheath Concert Hall, London, February 1994 (No. 1) DDD
WARNER CLASSICS 256461730-2 [6 CDs: 65:33 + 76:54 + 76:30 + 76:22 + 77:27 + 79:11]

 

Originally released under the Teldec banner, this newly-packaged Warner Classics six CD boxed set enters the market hot on the heels of EMIís equally newly-packaged Vaughan Williams box as realised by Bernard Haitink and the LPO. Add to this the competition of Handley, Previn, Slatkin and Boult together with ongoing individually released projects from Paul Daniel on Naxos and Richard Hickox on Chandos and one starts to realise the range of choice. It is a luxury that VW fans could only have dreamed of as recently as ten years ago. If one looks to price alone as a means of thinning down the choice it becomes no easier. Handley, Boult and Haitink are all available at around or even less than the twenty pounds mark.

Ultimately, with price concerns cast aside, the choice comes down to one of quality. I will say right away that in this department Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra offer a very mixed bag indeed.

In his conception of the Sea Symphony Davis does demonstrate a sense of command. Getting to grips with this most sprawling of Vaughan Williams symphonies is no mean feat although in recent times Paul Daniel achieved it admirably on Naxos with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Davis grasps the architecture of the work as surely as he does with Elgar; I have always found Davis to be a sure footed Elgar interpreter. He creates a sense of cohesion that not all of the competition manage to achieve. Admittedly he is aided by sterling vocal contributions from his soloists, with Thomas Hampson being particularly noteworthy. The ever-reliable BBC Symphony Chorus is also in fine fettle. Add to this an impressively engineered recording with excellent orchestral and choral perspective and this opening instalment in the cycle offers considerable promise.

Sadly I have rather more reservations when it comes to A London Symphony. Whilst the opening movement gains spirit with its passage, the mist-shrouded opening comes across as subdued rather than atmospheric despite impressive pianissimo playing. The Lento slow movement fares better, yet Davisís somewhat pedestrian tempo in the Scherzo robs the music of its hustle, bustle and character. Late in his life Vaughan Williams was to comment that he never again replicated the transparency of texture that he achieved in this movement. His gossamer like orchestration is even more effective when band and conductor have the conviction to let it take flight. Although the Finale restores matters somewhat the vagaries of the performance leave an uneven impression.

The Symphony No. 3 is VWís most personal symphonic utterance. I well remember attending a Prom performance some years ago by the very same orchestra and conductor here recorded that held the audience in rapt silence. If only one could say that more often of Prom audiences! Sadly that palpable sense of atmosphere is missing. In the finest recordings (Handley and Previn are magnificent!) it is the pain of the inspiration as much as the sheer beauty of the music that can leave an indelible impression. Yet despite decent enough orchestral playing from the BBC Symphony Orchestra the performance as a whole lacks emotional depth. Even in the quicker third movement, marked Moderato pesante-Presto, the overall impression is one of superficiality.

It is a lack of drive and ultimately purpose that dogs the mighty Symphony No. 4. Once again issues of tempo raise their head as Davis chooses speeds that restrict the momentum of the music. In the outer two movements Davis is over a minute slower than Paul Daniel in his revelatory recent recording with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. This is a point that is particularly telling in the Finale, which the composer himself took at a daredevil pace in his own legendary recording of the work. If ever there is a symphony that should avoid the pedestrian this is it but I am sorry to say that the lack of conviction in the playing here relegates the recording to that very rank.

The Fifth Symphony fares somewhat better, partly due to Tony Faulknerís beautifully rounded recording. Indeed it is fair to say that throughout this cycle the quality of engineering is beyond reproach. The orchestral detail in the Scherzo is captured with crystal clarity and the sound of the orchestra has just the right amount of bloom. Once again however, this does not mask the fact that the overall performance fails to convince. The elusive marriage of ecstasy and serenity is naggingly missing from the Romanza.

Paradoxically it is the atmosphere of desolation that Davis and his players capture in the final movement of the Sixth Symphony that marks it out as one of the highlights of the set. Whether the invigoration of commencing the cycle played a part we will never know; this was the first of the symphonies to be released individually. What is certain is that the conviction lacking in the Fourth Symphony is on display here in abundance. The first movementís potent message is terrifyingly portrayed and as with the malevolently cackling Scherzo detail is evident everywhere. The obsessive and incessant rhythm of the second movement Moderato becomes painful in its relentlessness but it is the sheer emptiness of the final Epilogue that hammers home and terrifies every bit as much as the devastating power of the opening movement.

Once again Tony Faulknerís accomplished engineering vividly captures the sonic spectacle of the Sinfonia Antartica whilst Davis and the orchestra turn in some pleasing results, if not on a par with the quality of the Sixth. Certainly the spirit of endeavour at the opening and the bleakness of the landscapes are atmospherically done although Davisís penguins in the Scherzo come across as distinctly humourless creatures.

Sadly the Eighth Symphony is once again plagued by questionable choice of tempi. Davis tries to force the pace far too much in the first movement, whilst there is a total lack of coordination between strings and percussion a few bars in. The Scherzo and Finale are an improvement although there are more tender accounts of the gorgeous Cavatina.

The recordings of the Ninth Symphony in E minor and Job were made at about the same time but it is in the latter that we have the real highlight of this box. The Ninth certainly comes close to a fine recording but this is Vaughan Williams at his most enigmatic and whilst there are impressive moments the performance as a whole does not quite convey the visionary message of the music as convincingly as Handley or Haitink. Haitink in particular excels on EMI with the LPO. The Haitink is coupled with a decent if not quite so impressive Eighth. Job however is simply magnificent. So much so that with the exception of the Sixth Symphony the unevenness of the symphony recordings is exaggerated to an even greater degree. With one minor quibble in The Dance of Jobís Comforters, where Davis is once again on the quick side, orchestra and conductor are at the height of their form. They offer ravishing playing in the slower sections and terrific menace in the passages of satanic darkness. Soloists too are uniformly excellent and it is good to see principal oboe Richard Simpson credited for the Dance of the Three Messengers as well as Michael Davis for ravishing solo violin playing in Elihuís Dance of Youth and Beauty, one of the most beautiful moments in Vaughan Williamsí entire output.

The Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, The Lark Ascending, Greensleeves and the Overture to The Wasps all receive creditable recordings. The BBC Symphony strings are lush and full-bodied in the Tallis and Tasmin Little is a lucid soloist in The Lark Ascending.

In overview the weaknesses of this set are considerably greater than the strengths. A particularly powerful Sixth Symphony is up there with the best, even more so Job which is certainly high on my recommended list. The sonic qualities of the Sinfonia Antarctica and a well constructed Sea Symphony are also worthy of mention but if it is a complete set of the RVW symphonies that you require I would turn to the ever-reliable Vernon Handley as the best value and consistency around.

Christopher Thomas

 



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