Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Symphonies Nos. 1-6 and 8
Overture The Wasps [9:59]
A Sea Symphony (Symphony No.1)* [66:20]
George BUTTERWORTH (1885-1916) The Banks of Green Willow [6:15]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS A London Symphony (Symphony No.2) (original 1913 version) [61:19]
Norfolk Rhapsody No.2 (premiere recording) [9:15]
A Pastoral Symphony (Symphony No.3)** [39:00]
The Running Set [6:33]
Norfolk Rhapsody No.1 [11:25]
Symphony No.4 [31:47]
Mass in g minor*** [24:26]
Valiant for Truth*** [5:59]
Symphony No.5 [39:31]
The Pilgrim Pavement***/† /†† [8:43]
Hymn Tune Prelude on Song 13 by Orlando Gibbons (orch. Helen GLATZ) [3:17]
The Twenty-third Psalm (arr. John CHURCHILL)***/†† [2:31]
Prelude and Fugue in c minor††† [10:13]
Six Choral Songs to be sung in the Time of War [12:00]
Symphony No.6 in e minor [35:29]
Nocturne (premiere recording)+ 
Symphony No.8 in d minor [28:26]
Interview: Richard Hickox discusses Vaughan Williams with James Jolly
Ian Watson† , Malcolm Hicks††† (organ)
Gerald Finley (baritone)*; Susan Gritton (soprano)*; Rebecca Evans (soprano)**; Carys Lane (soprano) †† ; Roderick Williams (baritone)+
London Symphony Chorus*/***; Richard Hickox Singers***
London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox
Rec. Barbican, London, June 2006; All Saints, Tooting, London, October 1997, May 1998, December 2000, January 2001, January 2002, January 2003. DDD.
CHANDOS USB MEMORY STICK CHUSB0008 [contents of 7 CDs: 76:16 + 67:39 + 66:11+ 68:02 + 69:56 + 71:48 + 28:37] - order from Chandos.net.
An Introduction to Vaughan Williams
Overture The Wasps* [10:16]
Fantasia on Greensleeves [4:34]
The Lark Ascending** [15:36]
A London Symphony (Symphony No.2) [47:41]
Michael Davis (violin)**
London Symphony Orchestra/Bryden Thomson; London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley*
CHANDOS CHAN2028 [78:06]
Sinfonia Antartica (Symphony No.7) [41:10]
Toward the Unknown Region [13:14]
Catherine Bott (soprano); Roderick Elms (organ); London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra/Bryden Thomson
Rec. St Jude on the Hill, Hampstead, London, 21-22 June 1989. DDD.
CHANDOS CHAN8796 [54:24]
Symphony No.9 in e minor [30:59]
Piano Concerto in C [25:46]
Howard Shelley (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra/Bryden Thomson
Rec. St Jude on the Hill, Hampstead, London, 8-9 November 1990. DDD.
CHANDOS CHAN8941 [56:38]
Not long ago I had a wonderful excuse to re-hear Sir Adrian Boult’s 1950s recording of the Vaughan Williams symphonies in recommending a super-budget-price download version. (Classical Masters from Amazon.co.uk, for £6.99 in mp3 - follow this link and see my November 2010 Download Roundup.) The arrival of the USB version of those symphonies which Richard Hickox completed, supplemented by Bryden Thomson’s version of the conventional text of the London Symphony, which Hickox recorded in its longer original version, and of the Sinfonia Antartica and Ninth Symphony, which Hickox never got around to before his untimely death, has allowed me to repeat the indulgence.
In a sense, those Boult recordings are unassailable, but the mono sound (stereo only in Nos. 8 and 9), good as it was for its day, is no match for modern DDD recordings, especially as the Classical Masters download is offered at a miserly 160kb/s. The Passionato download of the same set (Decca 473 2412) is more expensive at £24.99, little less if any, than the cost of the CD set, but comes in a more reliable transfer at 320kb/s. Add the consideration that Hickox was able to obtain one-off permission to record the original London Symphony and that his engagement with the composer is almost as special as that of Boult or Barbirolli, and the USB set becomes a must-have alongside the Boult.
I added the Hickox version of the London Symphony to my collection soon after it was released, partly as a result of the strong recommendation here from Simon Foster and Paul Conway, long before I had anything to do with MusicWeb International. I listen to it regularly, but it isn’t the only reason to obtain the Hickox set. The Sea Symphony is equally impressive, but the volume needs a considerable boost in order to sound well. The Pastoral is also excellent, as are the two Norfolk Rhapsodies from the same CD, proving that Hickox was just as much at home in less well-known VW.
On the other hand, I’m still not on much better terms with the stark Fourth Symphony than I was before hearing the Hickox recording, though he comes closer to persuading me even than Boult, especially in the bustling Scherzo, and the Mass in g on the same programme is excellent, though I needed no persuading of its qualities, and strong though the competition is from Matthew Best on Hyperion.
The Fifth Symphony comes in another outstanding performance, its connections with VW’s work on Pilgrim’s Progress attractively enhanced by the other offshoots from this enterprise with which it’s coupled. I’ve already endorsed the attractions of this in my October 2010 Download Roundup.
The Sixth is slightly less impressive - lacking a degree of the power of either of the Boult recordings or my version of choice, Sir Andrew Davis’s recording on an inexpensive Warner Apex reissue. (0927 49584-2, with the Tallis Fantasia and The Lark Ascending.) The early Nocturne makes an ideal bridge between that and the Eighth, which receives a performance as good as any that I have heard.
All these Chandos USB collections come on an 8MB memory stick of the kind that most of us are familiar with. The music is included in both lossless (wma or flac - state your choice when ordering) and mp3 form - the former for high-quality listening on an audio set-up, the latter for use with an mp3 player or car radio. The other recordings in the series, like the Reginald Goodall Wagner Ring which I recently reviewed - here - take up most of that space and are sold for £99.99. The Vaughan Williams requires only 5MB, so you have another 3MB to use for your own storage purposes and, at £49.99, is competitively priced when it contains downloads which, bought separately, would cost £59.94. The Hickox/Jolly interview is offered as a bonus, though that may not be a great incentive.
You will need to drag and drop the files from the stick to your computer hard drive or external drive in order to play them or burn them to CDR, a process which took me about 6 minutes - a considerable saving on the time required to download all this material. You may need to spend a little time renaming Tk1 to Tk9 as Tk01 to Tk09 in Windows Explorer in the case of the folder containing the Fourth Symphony - otherwise many media players will follow track 1 with track 11. Do it carefully, not with the originals on the USB stick, which remain your backup, but with the tracks on your hard drive.
A strange problem arose when playing the lossless wma version of the London Symphony via Squeezebox, my favourite method of listening to downloaded music. Track 5, the finale of the symphony, starts to play then drops out for several seconds before re-starting, but the track plays perfectly normally when I go back to the beginning, so there’s no actual drop-out in the music.
The problem doesn’t occur with the mp3 version, but for once I did notice a considerable difference in quality between the mp3 and lossless versions. I downloaded the same wma version of the symphony from Chandos’s theclassicalshop.net and the two tracks play perfectly well one after the other on Squeezebox. I also burned the offending version to CDR, using the iTunes player, and the whole symphony again played without hitch, perhaps because iTunes converts the tracks to wav format first. Make sure that you choose that format, to obtain the best quality, before importing the folder to iTunes.
If you encounter the same problem, try deleting the five tracks of CHAN9902, the folder which contains the London Symphony, but leave the empty folder itself on your hard drive, then drag the five tracks from the USB stick into the folder on your hard drive. This sounds onerous, but isn’t really, and it solved the problem. Don’t ask me how - I’m not a tech person: it just worked.
The Thomson recording of the London Symphony on CHAN2028 makes an excellent and inexpensive supplement for those who don’t always wish to hear the original version, while those with an interest in historical recordings should try the Beulah Extra reissue of Sir Henry Wood’s version of this symphony which I reviewed in my February 2011 Download Roundup. (Woods conducts British Music, 34PD3.) Alternatively, there’s Boult’s stereo recording of the London Symphony and the magical Tallis Fantasia on EMI 7640172 - currently not available on CD but worth downloading from Passionato in mp3 or lossless sound. EMI are currently reissuing some of their British Composers recordings on 5-CD sets, so the Boult may reappear in that form.
It isn’t mandatory to stay with Chandos for the other two symphonies, and there are aspects of Thomson’s Antartica that fall short of the ideal, notably the slow tempi and the failure to capture the tension at strategic moments, but I still derived enjoyment from hearing this account and even more from Toward the Unknown Region which accompanies it. Maybe part of the disappointment stems from having been weaned on Boult’s mono version, the Antartica still sounding very well in the download set to which I’ve referred or with the stereo Eighth on an inexpensive Belart CD. (461 1162 - if it’s still available.) Haitink (EMI 5860262) - my own choice among current stereo box sets - and Handley on an inexpensive Classics for Pleasure recording (5753132) are more modern recommended guides.
Whatever shortcomings there may be in Thomson’s Antartica, his Ninth is first rate, as is the accompanying version of the Piano Concerto - the single-piano version of what is more usually performed, if at all, in the revised two-piano form. Despite strong competition on Lyrita, where the same single-piano version from Howard Shelley (again) and Vernon Handley is coupled with John Foulds’ Dynamic Triptych - SRCD.211: see January 2009 Download Roundup and review by Colin Clarke - I have nothing but praise for this Chandos recording and the Chandos lossless sound is preferable to eMusic’s mp3 version of the Lyrita. Whatever you choose for the Antartica, you need not look far beyond Thomson for the Ninth and the Piano Concerto.
The Hickox USB set, then, represents very good value. For all my minor reservations, inevitable in a large collection, and none of them serious, the vast majority of these recordings are first-rate. The same is true of the three Thomson recordings to which I’ve referred, though I think you may prefer Handley as a single-CD replacement for the Antarctica. None of the recordings that I’ve referred to here has shaken my belief in Vaughan Williams as a major musical figure.
The high quality of this set of the symphonies could well lead you to look at Richard Hickox’s other Vaughan Williams recordings, such as those of Sancta Civitas and Dona nobis pacem on EMI British Composers 7547882 (now at budget price, so less expensive on disc than most downloads), Christmas Music (Chandos CHAN10385) and The Pilgrim’s Progress (Chandos CHAN9625), to name but three.
Impressive readings from Hickox.