Rehearing a favourite recording after a gap of several years can
be a funny thing. Sometimes we marvel afresh at the excellence
of the performance or the recorded sound. Sometimes we hear something
new, a detail of interpretation that had escaped our notice before
and which now contributes in its own way to our satisfaction.
Occasionally we revisit a performance of which we had a rather
low opinion, only to find, this time round, that it was rather
better than we had supposed. And now and again we will listen
to a record we thought we knew and loved and find less in it than
we had thought; the magic has vanished, the performance remains
Listening to this
reissue of vintage Vaughan Williams recordings from the EMI
vaults I experienced conflicting reactions; both welcome surprise
and a sense of disappointment. The Sargent items were far better
and more involving than I had remembered them; Barbirolli’s
famous interpretation of the Fifth Symphony now seems rather
less than the sum of its parts.
To mark the RVW
centenary EMI have combined the contents of two previous CD
releases of the composer’s music. The Sargent items had their
first CD incarnation in 1990 in the old Studio series, the Barbirolli
VW Fifth appearing on a previous British Composers CD
in 1994, when it was paired with Bax’s Tintagel. EMI
appear to have used the same remasterings as before; this is
not a problem in the Sargent items, where the sound is full
and clear, if with a relatively high level of tape hiss. For
the Barbirolli Fifth, however, the sound is muffled and occluded;
this recording would have benefited from fresh remastering.
is very much in the doldrums at the moment, but in music with
which he had a strong personal affinity he could be as persuasive
as anyone. Here in four RVW works his affection for the music
is never in doubt. The early stereo copes well with the radiance
of the choral setting of Serenade to Music and Toward
the Unknown Region. In the Serenade Sargent’s four
soloists (in place of the original sixteen) are oratorio stalwarts
of the day and fulfil their roles admirably; Elsie Morison is
particularly splendid. In these works Sargent’s handling of
the chorus is everything we would expect from him. He also gives
a rousing performance of The Wasps and delineates well
the delicate tracery of Greensleeves. Listening to this
and the recently released BBC Legends CD of Sargent Prom performances
of the Sibelius and RVW Fourth Symphonies suggests that there
was rather more to ‘Flash Harry’ than he is sometimes given
recording of the Fifth - his second of the work, and
the first in stereo – is given a warm Kingsway Hall ambience.
This makes for a rather recessed sound picture and, in this
remastering at least, a recording quality characterised by atmosphere
and weight of tone rather than incisiveness. Thus the climaxes
of the first and third movements come across powerfully, even
if we might wish for the rushing, Sibelian string passages of
the first movement or the hobgoblin-like woodwind of the second
to cut across the texture more than they do. There is also a
persistent, low level background rumble that becomes more obvious
in quieter passages but which is rarely distracting.
The composer himself
in his recently released 1952 Proms traversal (Somm) leads a
performance of tremendous dedication and energy, with the work’s
restless and reflective aspects held in perfect equilibrium.
Boult in his mono Decca account stresses the work’s symphonic
cohesiveness with an urgency and focus that perhaps eluded his
EMI stereo remake. Barbirolli’s recording would frequently have
benefited from a greater sense of forward momentum, particularly
in the Romanza. His treatment of this movement seems
rather episodic, although there is no doubting his involvement
- his characteristic vocal contributions can be heard at several
points! Despite excellent orchestral playing I found this movement
disappointingly earthbound; only in the hushed closing pages
is a note of rapture really attained.
In the Finale the
Philharmonia cellos begin the Passacaglia theme rather vaguely
- compare this with Boult’s far more purposeful LPO - although
the movement soon picks up momentum and the return of the work’s
opening horn call is powerful enough. The closing pages, with
their polyphonic web of strings, are glorious.
To sum up, then;
I was rather less taken with Barbirolli’s performance than before.
Although conducted with all the passion we would expect, the
work does not seem to cohere structurally. There are individual
passages of great beauty but the overall trajectory of the work
is not so clearly delineated. The relatively cloudy sound quality
is also rather puzzling. I wonder if there had been a deterioration
of the master tape, as I don’t recall my LPs sounding like this.
Sargent’s recordings of the four shorter works are splendidly
done and have perfectly acceptable sound despite their fifty-year
And a further view from Rob Barnett:
Sargent has had
a poor press. Self-preening was not exactly unheard of amongst
conductors. Heaven knows what would have happened to him if
he had been lauded as much as Karajan. His arrogant attitude
to orchestral players as disposable drones cannot have helped
his reputation as it trails into a more egalitarian age. What
about his music-making? You do not have to be a nice human being
to be a great or even fine conductor. The recent BBC Legends
disc of Proms performances of the fourth symphonies by Vaughan
Williams and Sibelius suggests we should not rush to condemn.
His UK premiere of Martinů's Epic of Gilgamesh impresses
for its humanity and visionary nature. There is also a real
internal light in his broadcast of Alwyn's Lyra Angelica
with Sidonie Goossens as the harp soloist. The four Vaughan
Williams works here are familiar from the 87p Classics for Pleasure
LP and then the Music for Pleasure special which seemed to be
everywhere in the 1970s. He delivers a dapper and slightly stiff-necked
Wasps Overture but his Serenade to Music is much
more pliant even if this is the version for four soloists and
chorus rather than for sixteen soloists. Lyndon Jenkins tells
us that this was in fact the composer's preferred option. In
Sargent's hands it is a poetic salley so if you came to know
the work through this disc you would do no disservice to the
piece. Much the same can be said of the poetic and romantic-plush
Greensleeves Fantasia which proceeds at a honey-oozing
pulse. Some may find it overly romanticised. Toward the Unknown Region
has a lot going for it and as far as I can recall has never
sounded as good before. It was recorded a couple of years before
his powerful Martinů Gilgamesh broadcast and shows
the same visionary qualities around the Whitman text. Its real
strength is the choir who have been drilled to burnished perfection.
Their diction is admirable - in fact this is the best recorded
We then leave Sargent
and move to the classic and much reissued Fifth Symphony conducted
by Barbirolli. It is his second recording of the work. He had
gone into the studio with the Hallé in 1942 only seven months
after the composer's premiere. This is one of the finest interpretations
in the catalogue, brisk yet deeply spiritual. The sessions also
marked Barbiroolli's return to EMI after seven years with Pye.
He wrote to the composer in 1954 after conducting the Fifth
at Salisbury Cathedral: "What a heavenly work it is ...
sometimes I think the loveliest of them all".
The words to the
Serenade and Toward the Unknown Region are printed
in the booklet.
are between 50 and 45 years old and their analogue origins are
evident from the low and even hiss.
Vaughan Williams aired at last with Barbirolli for company.