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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910) [16:33]1
Symphony No. 5 in D major (1943) [40:36] 2
Andre PREVIN (b.1929)
Reflections for Cello, English Horn and Orchestra (1981) [12:06] 3
1Elita Kang, Nurit Bar-Josef (violins), Hui Liu (viola), 1,3Sophie Shao (cello), 3Lelie Ann Resnick (English Horn), 1-3Symphony Orchestra of the Curtis Institute of Music, Philadelphia/André Previn
rec. Giandomenico Studios, Collingswood, NJ, 8-9 February 1995. DDD
EMI CLASSICS 55371 [69:18]

The opening of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis here has stillness, sheen and already the expansive measure which characterizes the performance when all the string groups are playing. The sudden fp (tr. 1 1:08) alerts you to the evocative soft tremolo of the first violins ushering in a richly projected presentation of the Tallis theme, vividly scaled down to pp at the end (2:21) before a repeat which really is appassionato as marked, with playing of great fervour. The muted, smaller second orchestra which often gives out a swaying motif as a kind of refrain is clearly differentiated from the first though perhaps not quite as soft and mysterious as it might be. The central section which brings first solo viola, then violin and string quartet of soloists to the fore is presented in confident folksy manner. It’s forward, glowing and fluent. In contrast, when eventually these soloists and both orchestras join together and the texture becomes more elaborate and dense Previn’s approach is one of savoured lyricism, the poco a poco animando marking (10:52) only a fractional limbering up to the broader climax (11:28) and not the spontaneous combustion realized by the Sinfonia of London/John Barbirolli (EMI 5672642), for me this work’s finest interpretation. After the climax Previn’s second orchestra echoes do become chillingly ghostly and the consistently fluent duet between solo violin and viola is full of feeling and eloquence.

I compared Previn’s 1988 recording with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Telarc CD 80158). Its opening has more finesse but is also more self-conscious. The theme has a more sober dignity but its repeat is less passionate as it presses forward more. The second orchestra echoes are more eerie yet the solos in the central section are rather lugubrious in their expressiveness. But more animando before the climax here makes it more effective and the closing duet soulfully honours the melody.

Previn’s Curtis Institute account of Vaughan Williams’ Fifth symphony opens serenely with a lustrous string sound and steady focus, yet it also has a purpose and growth to its outpouring. The second theme (tr. 2 3:39) is balmy, the development (5:34) suddenly of a feathery insubstantiality in the strings and shadows of foreboding in the falling motif in the wind. The ensuing build up isn’t especially noteworthy but the strings’ climax is steely enough, after which the recapitulation is welcomed with relief and the second theme climax shines forth.

I compared all three Previn recordings. Here are the timings:

Timings    I  II    III IV      Total
Previn 1995 12:43 5:24  12:08 10:21 40:36
Previn 1988 12:30 5:14 12:57   9:55 40:36
Previn 1971 12:53 5:17 12:19 11:18 41:47

Previn first recorded this symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1971 (RCA 8287655 7082). The first movement is notable for the gentle insistence of its unfolding, the clarity and distinctness of texture, feel of all contributing and conviction of statement. The second theme is introduced and progresses with regal calm. The development contrasts glinting strings as if in the half light and ominous, energetic woodwind who whip the strings into a stormy outburst. In the recapitulation pristine calm is restored as the natural order, with a strong build up to a second theme climax of fiery avowal. The close is quizzical with the positive strings and negative woodwind elements side by side.

Previn’s second recording was with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1988 (Telarc CD 80158). The recording has greater density and this brings a vivid sense of a distinctive and mysterious environment, but the sense of progression is less strong and the observation seems more objective, from a distance. The second theme is rather dreamily treated, its climax more formal.

The 1995 Curtis recording under review isn’t as assured or organic in feel as Previn’s 1971 yet has a sense of a journey of discovery which makes it more engaging than Previn’s 1988 recording. The more shadowy nature of the opening of the development is a greater contrast than the other recordings, its build up more gradual and climax less expected but thrilling all the same. The recapitulation is more relaxed at first, but with a powerful build up to a formally presented second theme climax. The two elements of the close are smoothly blended.

Previn’s Curtis Scherzo is characterized by lightness of touch in the strings and jaunty humour in the wind. The first Trio (tr. 3 2:00) is full bodied jollity in the wind against teeming strings. The second Trio (3:43) has more bite but is still jocular. Towards the close when the fast opening and recurring material is presented becalmed the strings could relax more but at the very end they are sensitively shimmering. The 1971 Previn Scherzo is similar in tone but somewhat sharper in focus. The first Trio is firmer with strings, woodwind and brass more distinctly differentiated in their neat balance, the second Trio is spikier yet still dapper, while the strings relax more expressively towards the close.

To open the Curtis Romanza Previn creates a rapt strings’ expanse as a backcloth for a rich toned cor anglais solo and you appreciate the soft but dense, emotive response of the strings and its later flowering forth after their rich reprise of the solo. Curiously the development (tr. 4 5:58), though marked animato, seems a touch slower. It does, however, have striking dramatic focus, not least in the tingling tremolo on violins and violas shepherding the graphic horn and trumpet versions of the solo which are more clearly focussed than the 1971 solos. Here too the recapitulation comes as a relief, is a little faster as marked and with that freedom also comes a sense of fulfilment. The 1971 account isn’t as rich in tone but is more elegiac in manner. It’s less cultivated but seems more spontaneous than the Curtis, in particular owing to the seamless way one strand leads to another and the climax has a more blazing intensity.

Previn’s Curtis Passacaglia finale has a smooth flow in both the opening ground bass and violins’ counter melody (tr. 5 0:12) yet also a strong element of eagerness and joyous celebration. It’s really rather fast for the moderato marking of the opening and strains, via relished syncopation from 1:15, towards the eruption of the allegro second section (1:58) with brass turned full on and strings’ rhythms skipping. The third section (3:49) begins with a very reflective clarinet solo, the first of a number in the woodwind, scrupulously distinctive in VW’s somewhat gawky phrasing. The coda (6:29) brings back the symphony’s opening theme, welcomed with some breadth, before the strings reflect in relaxed, tender and hymn like fashion on the finale’s counter melody. Interestingly the quite fast closing counter melody works better than at the opening. The 1971 slower Passacaglia has a more natural flow from the outset, a kind of inevitability about it, contrasted by a stimulatingly brisk allegro and more measured third section before a more heroic return of the opening theme and closing serene counter melody. The trombones and bass trombone vivid capping of the horns and trumpets’ ff chord at the end of the second section and the bass trombone solo in the third section are more emphatically realized in 1971 than 1995.

The final work on this Previn Curtis CD features Previn as composer as well as conductor. The cover illustration may lead you to think Reflections (tr. 6) is going to be like The Swan of Tuonela but it’s neither as romantic nor as bleak. It’s a modern fantasia in that the initial melodic idea is constantly modified and extended. It begins with cor anglais alone in an angular yet soaring melody, shortly joined by a reflecting cello, which is to say its melody is as firm and clear as the original yet with a surprising intensity at the close, before other wind instruments get involved and the strings provide a backdrop and occasional comment, also sometimes of unexpected intensity. The work aspires to the rhapsodic but in an astringent environment. You could term this ‘the modern idiom’ and it includes some Brittenesque fanfare writing for trumpet at 3:51 which itself is a reflection of the cello solo. At 5:04 a livelier, jazzier, scherzo like section is started by side drum and cello which the cor anglais becalms with something more melodic and alluring, akin to a folksong outpouring. This the cello at first restlessly brushes aside but from 8:11 the two ideas are combined then interwoven. At 8:52, when the cor anglais introduces a new, more pleading idea the cello now reflects this. At 9:35 the strings find a passionate hinterland to the original melody and from 10:13 the cello an eloquent, wistful commentary which leads to a brief and moving unique playing in strict accord by cello and cor anglais from 10:28. The work ends with just the start of the cor anglais solo opening, like posing a question, but reminding you of the source of all the subsequent ideas. It sustains the listener’s interest as an examination of melodic motifs and moods, thoughtful and thought provoking and not otherwise currently available on CD in the UK than in this committed performance.

To sum up, these accounts, never released in the UK by EMI and only now available on Arkiv CD, are spirited and often attractive with a fine sense of direction. Even if the Fifth symphony doesn’t quite have the sheer conviction of Previn’s 1971 recording, the Curtis players show themselves to be a student orchestra of prolific talent. Their strings sound more like the Philadelphia than any other orchestra I’ve heard, unsurprisingly given that nearly half the Philadelphia’s players are Curtis Institute graduates.

Michael Greenhalgh



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