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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
The Wasps - Overture (1909) [8:52]
Serenade to Music (1938) [13:27]
Fantasia on 'Greensleeves' (arr. Ralph Greaves) (1934) [4:59]
Toward the Unknown Region (1907) [12:12]
Symphony No. 5 in D (1943) [38:28]
Philharmonia/Sir John Barbirolli (5); Elsie Morison (soprano); Marjorie Thomas (alto); Duncan Robertson (tenor); Trevor Anthony (bass); chorus/Peter Gellhorn; London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Malcolm Sargent.
rec. No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, 7-9 May 1957 (Sargent); Kingsway Hall, London, 8-9 May 1962. ADD
Experience Classicsonline

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 earthbound.

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.

Sargent’s reputation 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 credit for.

Barbirolli’s 1962 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 vintage.

Ewan McCormick

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 version.

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.

These recordings are between 50 and 45 years old and their analogue origins are evident from the low and even hiss.

Sargent's intriguing Vaughan Williams aired at last with Barbirolli for company.

Rob Barnett


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