Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Symphony No. 5 in D (1938-43) [38:47]
Symphony No. 8 in D minor (1953-55)* [29:17]
Hallé Orchestra/Sir Mark Elder
rec. live and in rehearsal, 9 November 2011, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester; *3 February 2012, BBC Studios, Media City UK, Salford
HALLÉ HLL CD 7533 [68:21]
Mark Elder’s is the most satisfying performance of RVW’s Symphony 5 that I’ve heard. Why? For me it’s because he gets the tempi just right. He isn’t afraid to be unhurried and yet at the same time a flowing, forward pulse is always apparent. You get a sense of smooth evolution and natural progression. This is balanced with clarity of structure. You also realize how much of an open air symphony this is. The Hallé’s playing and the recording are also very fine and therefore the whole atmosphere is bright, shining, luminous.
In the opening movement (tr. 1) Elder finds an appreciative, not simply cosy, tranquillity, knowing what it is not to be tranquil. You can savour the sheeny assurance of the second theme (3:03): the ‘Alleluia’ from RVW’s hymn ‘For all the saints’. Come the development (4:50) their gossamer strings contrast with ominous woodwind. Its raw climax seems not so much a storm as the trials of life to be faced before the calm of the recapitulation and the radiant climax of the second theme. I can imagine Elder saying to his brass ‘Breathe as much as you like earlier on but I want you really loud here’. Probably he didn’t need to but I’m sharing with you a moment from his rehearsals of Britten’s Sinfona da Requiem in July 2012 with the Aldeburgh World Orchestra.
Both this CD’s symphonies were first recorded by the Hallé with John Barbirolli, Symphony No. 5 in 1944 (Dutton CDBP 9731). In the opening movement JB relies on a conviction of momentum, an inner fire whereas Elder stands back and lets things evolve. JB’s development is more elemental, its climax more frenzied. His second theme climax is glows in the sun but lacks Elder’s sense of nurtured fulfilment.
Elder’s Scherzo second movement (tr. 2) is alert and perky, sleek and fresh. Out of its opening mystery come sudden flashes of strings and woodwind colour. The first Trio (1:46) is formed gradually from bumbling in the brass and lower woodwind. The second Trio (3:20) has more bounce: a merry bluster until it dissolves as if in an almost inexhaustible yawn. How well Elder lets us appreciate the wonderfully deft orchestration. His Presto is not as fast as Barbirolli’s (5:04 against 4:20) but this is to advantage, for Elder’s opening is busy rather than hectic. The relaxed close is also more appreciable, albeit JB have a more twinkling sense of mischief and a racier, more raucous Trio 2. To the Romanza (tr. 3) Elder brings a hushed opening, an eloquently contemplative cor anglais solo and a profound density of elegiac strings. It’s assured, gently tinged, not specially coloured yet deeply felt. The central woodwind arabesques are bracingly savoured yet the development (5:44) progresses to a searing realization of crisis. This is resolved by the warmth and certainty of affirmation that comes with the recapitulation. Barbirolli is faster in this movement too (11:16 against 12:17). This brings more dramatic sweep, less contemplation, more deliberate setting down and a reduced sense of unfolding of statement by comparison with Elder. In the Passacaglia finale (tr. 4) the counter-theme (0:12) ultimately proves more significant than the opening ground bass. It’s begun benignly by Elder in a calm of easy momentum yet his early variations soon show rhythmic teeth. A more festive second phase ensues (1:43) and a more troubled third one (3:30). The coda brings the return of the symphony’s opening now in a blaze of splendour. The warmth of the counter-melody triumphs and is made more personal by being taken up by several solo instruments. Elder presents all of this with lucidity and great assurance. Again Barbirolli is faster (9:10 against 9:59). This brings a purposeful sweep which, for all that, sounds rather hasty in comparison with Elder. JB’s coda is equally serene but not as warm.
RVW called the opening movement of Symphony 8 (tr. 5) ‘seven variations in search of a theme’. To the first Elder brings a nonchalant start but then a passionate outburst as part of the natural order of things. His Variation 2 (1:47) has energy and lightness but also a steely spikiness. The latter allows more contrast for the expansive relaxation of Variation 3 (2:49) which in turn makes for a smooth transition to a contemplative approach to Variation 4 (4:50). Steadiness remains in Variation 5 (6:25) before an arrestingly faster Variation 6 (7:58). The brakes come on again for Variation 7 (8:24) which brings back the melody of Variation 3, now with trumpets glowingly to the fore.
Barbirolli is the dedicatee of this symphony and recorded it in 1956 (Barbirolli Society CDSJB 1021). He’s faster in the first movement, 10:10 against Elder’s 10:54. This gives it more animation. His Variation 1 has more humour. His Variation 2 is more waspish. I find Elder’s slower Variation 3 more satisfying but JB makes a good case for its return as Variation 7 to be gentler early on yet retaining the feel of a summation.
Elder’s Scherzo second movement for wind instruments wears its virtuosity easily yet with appreciable clarity. It is pacy but also jolly. The Trio which Elder takes at a leisurely Andante is a refreshingly cool pastoral escape. Barbirolli makes less of a contrast in tempo here. This spells a reduced sense of release yet brings more humour to his slightly slower, less sheerly snazzy Scherzo. The Cavatina third movement for strings alone (tr. 7) is marked Lento espressivo. Elder, taking 9:18, stresses its measured quality. Barbirolli, taking 7:43 emphasises its expressive qualities. With Elder you get a sense of smooth elegiac reflection, a seamless melodic line that keeps turning in on itself. This emerges first from the cellos fully exploiting their wide compass, then from rhapsodizing violins. This precedes a passage of stately repose in all the strings. In the central interlude (4:01) a solo violin breaks free and encourages an airier, more ardent and optimistic phase. After this Elder’s recapitulation seems sullen in the lower strings albeit offset by the calm of the upper strings. Yet what a richness of string texture there is to appreciate. Barbirolli is earnest and heart-on-sleeve. His passage of repose is less poised though his interlude gains fire at this faster tempo. JB’s recapitulation is ominous, his upper strings more troubled, his closing cello solo more heartfelt than Elder’s more distilled purity of line.
Elder makes the Toccata finale (tr. 8) a sonorous celebration, enjoying its showcasing of tuned gongs and glockenspiel. This rondo’s closing blaze of triumph is only won after the negotiation of some tricky episodes. The first (1:17) just threatens to disturb. The second (2:19), more strident, and the third (3:10), more visionary and optimistic, find the rondo itself changing to assimilate their points of view. Elder stands back and gives us a clear view of these transformations. Barbirolli, again a little faster (4:59 against Elder’s 5:17) has greater energy and jollity with a decidedly dramatic first episode, a scary second and a third which seems from an even more rarefied world. The glory of this CD from Elder is that it offers a consistent and sustained appreciation of the reflective aspects of these RVW symphonies.

Michael Greenhalgh

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See also review by John Quinn and Michael Cookson
A consistent and sustained appreciation of the reflective aspects of these RVW symphonies.