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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Symphony No. 5 in D (1943) [39:02]
Symphony No. 8 in D minor (1953-5) [29:22]*
Hallé Orchestra/Sir Mark Elder
rec. Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, November 2011; *BBC Studios, MediacityUK, Salford, February 2012
HALLÉ CD HLL 7533 [68:24]

Vaughan Williams' Fifth Symphony isn't a "difficult" score, but its unstable harmonies and cool demeanour - the composer dedicated the score to Jean Sibelius - must, in its initial outings, have felt new and strange. The piece has by now become familiar to both players and listeners; even so, a good performance should convey some sense of mystery and unease. Parts of Sir Mark Elder's performance, however, seem almost matter-of-fact; they might as well be on cruise control. 

The rhythmic lightness at the start isn't unwelcome, though the theme "sticks" at every dotted quarter-note in the motto rhythm, impeding the music's long line. Sadly, there's no clear sense of destination, or even of structure: the start of the development and that of the recapitulation pass, barely acknowledged. Here and in the following Scherzo, the soft playing of the strings and reeds is pallid. Only the brass entries - in the first-movement recapitulation and the tutti punctuations of the Scherzo - inject some brightness into the prevailing grey.
 
The other two movements get better. The Romanza begins fervently. The English horn sounds a bit contained, and the flute's still pale, but both solos are touchingly intoned. Thereafter, the music's ebb and flow comes across well. The first brass entry, ironically, sounds routine, but the ruminative, improvisatory phrases after that are sensitively inflected. The climax at 9:27 arrives heavily, and the movement overall feels a bit too long.
 
In the Finale, the players come to life. The woodwinds remain subdued, but the strings fill out their melodies warmly, and the varied tones and a greater sense of involvement draw the listener in. Unfortunately, the serene coda disappoints: even piano and pianissimo playing requires intensity and concentration.
 
The Eighth Symphony is more consistently successful, expressively phrased - particularly the poised, undulating "variations without a theme" of the first movement - with a nice interplay among the instrumental lines. The livelier passages go with plenty of energy. Again, the playing can feel inhibited. The climaxes at 5:44 and 7:48 of the first movement don't blossom or expand; they just get louder. Nor does Elder make much of the textural contrasts. The strings, oddly, sound more varied on their own, in the Cavatina movement, than playing with everyone else.
 
The recording is good, though Boult's fifty-year-old Decca Eighth comes across even more clearly, and with more colour. If I read the notes correctly, the Fifth Symphony is patched together from a concert performance and a rehearsal, while the Eighth is a studio recording.
 
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.

Previous reviews: John Quinn (Recording of the Month) ~~ Michael Cookson ~~ Michael Greenhalgh ~~ Ian Lace

Vaughan Williams review index: Symphonies