I was delighted to receive another recording from The Naxos
Historical Collection. This acclaimed series provides the
listener with the opportunity to hear both legendary radio broadcasts
and studio recordings from the most illustrious figures
in 20th century music. On this issue entitled The Composers
Conduct we are treated to vintage recordings from two
late-Romantic English composers conducting their own works.
The renowned restoration engineer Mark Obert-Thorn has successfully
remastered pre-war American Columbia shellacs and US Victor
Gold label pressings. Not too many years ago, owing to the
likelihood of experiencing a primitive re-mastering, I would
have actively avoided hearing old recordings such as this.
Tremendous strides have now been made in this field thanks
to recent technical advances and the restorative expertise
of leading audio engineers such as: Mark Obert-Thorn for
Naxos and Michael J. Dutton for his company Dutton Laboratories.
In my personal CD collection there are many favourite works
for which I have accumulated a large number of versions,
both for reasons
of pleasure and study. My exposure to these two English orchestral
masterpieces has been very different as I have listened to
only a small number of alternatives. In the early 1980s I
purchased one vinyl recording of Holst’s The Planets and
one of Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 4, performances
that served me well for many years. My vinyl version of the
Holst The Planets was James Loughran conducting the
Hallé Orchestra, circa 1975, on Classics For Pleasure CFP
40243 and my vinyl copy of the Vaughan Williams Symphony
No. 4 had Sir Adrian Boult conducting the New Philharmonia,
recorded in London in 1968, as part of a treasured 7 LP box
set of the complete symphonies on EMI SLS 1547083.
Several years later I replaced my record player going over to compact
disc and I replaced these two recordings with different versions.
I recall that I bought my new CD version of the Holst The
Planets as a result of a persuasive review of the acclaimed
1986 Montreal account from Charles Dutoit and the Orchestre
Symphonique de Montreal on Decca 417 553-2. With regard to
the Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 4 I selected the
acclaimed account from Vernon Handley and the Royal Liverpool
Philharmonic Orchestra, recorded in 1991 in Liverpool, on
EMI Classics for Pleasure 5 75310 2.
I was so content with my digital versions of both scores that I felt
no desire to replace them or add alternatives. In view of
the age of this Naxos Historical issue I have decided
not to provide comparative reviews and I will write my opinions
on the Holt and Vaughan Williams conducting performances
as I hear them.
It was in 1926 when Holst visited the large studio of Columbia Records
in Petty France, London to conduct The Planets with
the London Symphony Orchestra. In the opening movement Mars, the Bringer of War Holst
employs a surprisingly swift pace providing a dark sense
of foreboding. The brass, woodwind and string sections clash
uncomfortably at times in the forte passages but the
ear soon acclimatises to the sonics. It feels like Holst
is about to lose his forward momentum at times in Venus,
the Bringer of Peace and is about to come to a halt in
the early section of this unsettling movement. In the second
half of Venus the composer and his London players
provide a welcome respite from the disconcertion with a convincing
sense of calm and tranquillity. In Mercury, the Winged
Messenger the orchestra communicate a sense of restlessness
and disorder that was evocative of a bustling city railway
station concourse. Holst and his players convey a prevailing
mood of positive high spirits in Jupiter, the Bringer
of Jollity where the composer’s big tune is performed
with impressive grandeur. With Saturn, the Bringer of
Old Age Holst offers an unsettling picture of bleak and
empty landscapes that I find evocative of images of the Great
War such as an eerie hushed early morning on the Somme in
the aftermath of a terrible battle. The movement Uranus,
the Magician under the composer’s baton suggests a comical
picture of sorcery that could quite easily have come from
a Walt Disney film score. The final movement is Neptune,
the Mystic where Holst and the LSO create an air of mystery
through a shimmering mist.
Holst with the London Symphony Orchestra also conducts the Marching
Song No. 2, from his two Songs Without Words,
Op. 22 from 1906. It is an inconsequential work that was
recorded at the same sessions and used as a filler to the
original disc of Mercury in 1929.
Vaughan Williams was aged sixty-five when he conducted the BBC Symphony
Orchestra in this recording of the Symphony No. 4.
The opening movement allegro is given a confident
and committed reading where the music is gritty and uncompromising
with a character of troubled frenetic activity. Although
it is difficult to sense exactly what the composer had in
mind when writing the andante moderato movement Vaughan
Williams directs the orchestra with assurance drawing out
playing that contains an eerie and mysterious character.
The knotty and sinewy toughness of the agitated nature of
the scherzo movement is very much to the fore. Unfortunately
the brass here come across as tinny. The volume is cranked
up in a thrilling reading of the complex Finale con epilogo
fugato. Vigour and passion are the key elements and this
works tremendously well.
wouldn’t take issue with the notes that accompany this release
offering the viewpoint, “Although neither composer could
claim to be a natural-born conductor, these landmark recordings … offer
undimmed and thrilling recorded testaments.” I thoroughly
enjoyed these fascinating and well performed interpretations
and they contain a sound quality remarkable for their age.
I certainly won’t be dispensing with my treasured digital versions
but it is wonderful to have such amazing historical audio documents
of two great English composers conducting one of their masterworks.
Despite the obvious drawbacks resulting from the age of these
recordings this was a release that I enjoyed from start to
see also review by Jonathan Woolf