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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Symphony No. 4 in F minor (1934) [32:10]
Symphony No. 6 in E minor (1944) [31:03]
Cleveland Orchestra/Pierre Boulez
rec. Masonic Auditorium, Cleveland, Ohio, USA, October 2002. DDD.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 495 422-6 [63:13]

An unusual and rewarding release from the yellow label. Although Vaughan Williams was one of the great symphonists of the last century, it has taken Deutsche Grammophon a long time to record any of his output beyond the Tallis Fantasia and The Lark Ascending. Indeed, until very recently, recordings of Vaughan Williams' symphonies were by and large exclusively British affairs; even when taken up by non-British conductors, like Previn and Slatkin on RCA, Haitink on EMI and Bakels on Naxos, they generally recorded with British orchestras.

Enter Pierre Boulez. A long standing critic of British music, that Boulez would conduct Vaughan Williams at all is most surprising. The grand old man was still composing symphonies when the young Boulez was spouting all sorts of anti-symphonic rhetoric and establishing himself as the darling of Europe’s avant-garde. Perhaps DG held this recording back for four years because of the risk to Boulez's reputation. Symphonies with a modal flavour from a tweed-wearing Englishman must have been anathema to the young visionary and would be expected to remain so.

Age, however, seems to have softened Boulez. It is not a complete about-face, though. Boulez may be conducting Vaughan Williams, but he has chosen the most gnarled of the symphonies, the most violent and the most disquieting.

These performances are informed very much by Boulez's approach to Stravinsky and Bartók. Rhythmic lines are stressed, textures are clear and ensemble is perfectly balanced. There is also little surface emotion, a quality of distance that can make Boulez's performances seem cold. It is worth remembering, though, that Vaughan Williams himself resisted any attempt to cast these two symphonies as war symphonies. The traditions that have grown up around these two works may make the Boulez interpretations seem distant, but Boulez, perhaps more than anyone else, allows us to hear these scores as absolute music. Vaughan Williams would have approved.

The Fourth receives a fine performance. In the first movement, Boulez's timing is a whisker faster than Handley's and, in fact, not too far behind the composer's own mono recording. However, despite the pace, ensemble is perfect and the musical line is unbroken by any roughness. The scherzo and finale fly by, curiously without fire, but strong and impressive nonetheless.

The Sixth is a revelation. The crushing opening screams are pounded out by the orchestra and the downward rush that follows never becomes confused or loses its rhythmic centre. Boulez's control here is extraordinary. Pointed rhythms enhance the snarling of the second movement. In the third movement the uncredited saxophonist leans back on the beat and gives the solo equal measures of jazz and sleaze. It almost doesn't work, but Boulez gives the soloist room and he or she brings it off. The finale carries the most hushed intensity since Boult's first recording with the London Philharmonic on Decca (also available on Australian Eloquence). Boulez sees this uneasily quiet music as an arc and the Cleveland strings, with a genuine pianissimo, support the through-line admirably.

In fact, the playing of the Cleveland Orchestra is magnificent throughout this disc. The Clevelanders have a fine pedigree in British music. Szell’s Walton performances remain among the most exciting on record. The choice of the crack American band gives the recording a different tonal palette to what one usually expects in this music. The string tone is consistently smooth, even in the more vigorous passages, and the brass has that bold American quality that contrasts so strongly with the brass-band influenced sonority common to most British orchestras.

The acoustic of the Masonic Auditorium is a touch dry, but if anything this actually helps to clarify textures at the climaxes of the opening movements of both symphonies. These can can often sound crowded in more reverberant venues.

I would not rank Boulez above my prime recommendations in this music. Handley and Previn are the benchmarks and Boult's classic mono recordings of these symphonies remain essential. Boulez is too unidiomatic for his recording to usurp theirs. However, as an illuminating alternative view of these scores, his is very hard to beat. The other continental European to have recorded both of these symphonies in recent years, Bernard Haitink, comes off a pale second best.

Tim Perry

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