may not have been a great technical conductor, but he knew how
his music should sound”. The words are those of RVW’s friend
and biographer, the distinguished critic, Michael Kennedy. I
suggest that anyone hearing this revelatory CD would be bound
to agree with that verdict.
Williams was not thought to be a great conductor he was rarely
invited to record his own music. This is in stark contrast to,
say, Elgar, Walton or Britten, all of whom recorded their own
music extensively. Yet the evidence of that boiling, incandescent
recording of his Fourth Symphony that RVW set down with the
BBC Symphony Orchestra on 11 October 1937 shows that he was
a vivid communicator of his own works (Dutton CDAX 8011). That’s
long been a prized part of my own collection, as has the recording
of Dona Nobis Pacem, in an earlier transfer, but I never
thought we’d uncover a recording of him conducting what is perhaps
his finest symphony.
of the Fifth comes from the 1952 Henry Wood Promenade concerts
at which all six of the symphonies that RVW had written to date
were played in honour of his forthcoming eightieth birthday.
It’s worth remembering that the symphony had been premièred
at the Proms just nine years earlier, also under the composer’s
baton. According to Alan Sanders’ very interesting note the
broadcast was recorded off-air onto a long-playing acetate disc
by an engineer named Eric Spain. The results are quite remarkable.
To be sure, there is some surface noise but it is never intrusive
and a remarkable amount of detail and perspective has been captured.
There seems to have been no attempt made to edit out the audience
noise between movements and this adds to the sense that we are
eavesdropping on an event. However, no applause is retained
at the end and while I usually like to hear some applause at
the end of a live recording – a minority view, I suspect – on
this occasion I don’t mind.
As to the performance,
well it’s a very fine one. There are a few orchestral fluffs
but nothing too serious. Vaughan Williams gives a reading that
is direct and unfussy but one that also conveys admirably the
wonderful poetry of this radiant symphony. The first movement
proceeds serenely yet it has a quiet inner strength. When the
music quickens (at 5:11) RVW obtains lightness from the strings
but the melody in the wind and brass has a hint of darkness.
When the climax of the movement arrives (8:10) it has an unforced
Much of the music
of the second movement is characterised by what I’d term a rugged,
rustic lightness. In places it suggests to me the ‘Rude Mechanicals’
of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There are some occasional
frailties in the playing but generally speaking the BBCSO responds
well, giving a delightful account of the piece. At the very
end the music dissolves up into the ether.
How moving it is
to hear Vaughan Williams direct the glorious slow movement,
containing as it does so much music from Pilgrim’s Progress,
the visionary work that had occupied him for so many years.
He achieves a real hushed intensity at the very start and there’s
a lovely cor anglais solo. This ravishing movement shows Vaughan
Williams’s lyrical gifts at their peak. Everything about this
reading seems so right and he builds up to a glowing climax
before allowing the music to die away in peaceful tranquillity.
The finale is a
joyful movement and it comes across as such in its creator’s
hands. There’s a real sense of hope in this music, despite its
genesis in the dark days of war and RVW puts that across effortlessly.
The gentle benediction of the coda is handled sensitively and
with satisfying simplicity. The composer said of his Fourth
symphony that it was what he “meant” and I think that’s true
also of this deeply satisfying performance of the Fifth.
It used to be thought
by some commentators, mistakenly but understandably, that the
Fourth symphony was a depiction of the gathering political storms
in Europe in the 1930s. In fact the cantata Dona Nobis Pacem
is, surely, a much more direct artistic response to those menacing
times and it’s amazing to find that Vaughan Williams, having
produced such a searing work in the run-up to the Second World
War, then penned a pacific work like the Fifth symphony while
the conflict was at its height.
of Dona Nobis Pacem presented here was given just a month
after the work received its first performance from the Huddersfield
Choral Society under Albert Coates. When Vaughan Williams came
to broadcast it for the BBC he had the services of the same
two soloists who had taken part in the première. This performance
has appeared on CD before (Pearl GEMM CD9342) but this present
release is claimed as its first authorised release. Presumably
the source for this Somm issue is the BBC itself for Alan Sanders
comments that this “is one of the Corporation’s few pre-war
music recordings to have survived”. The Pearl booklet states
that the source for their issue is “a private acetate transcription”.
I can state unequivocally
that an A/B comparison shows that this Somm transfer completely
supersedes the Pearl effort. The Somm disc is brighter, clearer
and has an almost visceral impact compared with the Pearl. Not
only that, the new transfer reports much more detail in both
the loud and soft passages. Indeed, following with a vocal score
I was amazed at how much inner detail is revealed – for example
in the third section where the choir divides into eight parts,
singing quietly and unaccompanied (cue 14 in the vocal score).
It is simply staggering how vividly this recording speaks to
us more than seventy years after it was made.
And the performance
is vivid too. In the first movement Renée Flynn’s voice is caught
with real presence – as is the case throughout the performance
– and she sings marvellously. When the orchestra and chorus
enter Vaughan Williams obtains some impassioned results. The
second movement is a setting of RVW’s beloved Walt Whitman,
as are the third and fourth movements. “Beat! beat! drums!”
the choir sings. It’s a frenzied movement and Vaughan Williams
whips up a real storm. The brass and percussion sound really
vivid. The chorus parts are not easy, as I know from personal
experience, but the BBC Chorus acquits itself valiantly. They’re
rhythmically accurate – no mean feat in itself, especially in
unfamiliar music - and the composer inspires them to singing
of genuine fervour.
The third movement,
‘Reconciliation’, is at the centre of the work in more ways
than one. Roy Henderson is a most dignified and moving soloist.
Here there’s further evidence of Vaughan Williams’s conducting
skill, for examples of subtle rubato abounds in his account
of this movement and this could not have been achieved by someone
who didn’t know what they were doing on the podium. It’s a most
beautiful movement and the performers rise to great eloquence,
none more so than Henderson, especially as he sings of the soldier
finding his enemy’s corpse in its coffin. Whitman is, for my
taste, somewhat mawkish here but Vaughan Williams in his music
and Henderson in his singing transcend that.
The third and final
Whitman setting is the celebrated ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’.
There’s great cumulative power in the march that forms the basis
of much of this movement. Vaughan Williams builds the tension
purposefully and with skill and patience. The huge climax at
“I hear the great drums pounding” is powerfully achieved as
is the potent passage for orchestra alone a few pages later
(5:09). The text is portentous at times, as Whitman so often
is, but Vaughan Williams’s music has strength and conviction
and this enables him to avoid sentimentality.
The fifth movement
opens with a masterstroke. Over the sparest of accompaniments
the baritone soloist sings lines from the celebrated speech
made in the House of Commons by the radical MP, John Bright
(1811-1889), in opposition to the Crimean War on 23 February
1855: “The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land.”
Here Henderson’s hushed singing is hypnotically powerful. He’s
quite chilling without any theatricality and he generates a
tremendous atmosphere before the choral outburst, “Dona nobis
pacem”. The movement ends on a more hopeful note with a chorus
that, to me, anticipates the concluding pages of the Christmas
work, Hodie (1954). Despite all the trials and tribulations
of the 1930s Vaughan Williams could retain a sense of hope,
if not optimism.
Dona Nobis Pacem
is in many ways a work of its time but, in the sentiments
that it expresses, it’s surely a work for our times also. It’s
sincere and impassioned and a very fine piece. I’m surprised
and disappointed that it’s not heard more often. It’s both moving
and exciting to hear it under the composer’s own direction at
a time when it was so new and also at a time when it was so
relevant to the events that had moved him to write it. In this
excellent new transfer the performance comes vividly to life.
As I listened I found myself wondering how many of the performers
may subsequently have become victims of the war that was not
then far off.
In this year (2008)
that marks the fiftieth anniversary of Vaughan Williams’s death
I hope there will be many fine performances, broadcasts and
recordings to celebrate his life and music. The year has started
auspiciously with Tony Palmer’s wonderful new film biography,
O Thou Transcendent. However, this superb release from
Somm may turn out to be the most invaluable of all the anniversary
tributes. It’s a mandatory purchase for all lovers of Vaughan
Williams’s music and, frankly, a priceless document.