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, 9 November 2011, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester; 3 February 2012, BBC Studios, Media City UK, Salford
HALLÉ HLL CD 7533 [68:21]
Is a Vaughan Williams cycle quietly emerging from Manchester? After Elder’s revelatory recording of the complete incidental music for The Wasps (review) we had to wait quite a while for more Vaughan Williams from this source – Elgar was one priority, so, too, was Wagner – but then at the end of 2011 an excellent account of the ‘London’ Symphony arrived (review). Now two more symphonies have been set down. As was the case with their last RVW disc we have here a mixture of one performance (the Eighth) recorded under studio conditions while the Fifth comes from a live performance and rehearsals for that concert.
The performance of the Fifth is beautifully judged and shows complete empathy with the music. As is well known, RVW used material from his then-unfinished ‘morality’, Pilgrim’s Progress. The thematic links are most obvious in the third movement, though snippets crop up elsewhere, but much of the work seems imbued with the spirit of Pilgrim, even when there’s no actual musical link.
The first movement unfolds serenely here, the pacing ideal. The orchestral playing is very fine and the various lines are well balanced against each other. The change to E major (3:03) is radiant. A slightly darker mood intrudes at 4:30 with the first appearance of a three-note woodwind motif which seems to me to echo the music to which Pilgrim’s enemies sing the words “away with him” in the stage work. Elder injects the right amount of energy into the middle section of the movement before the rich, warm climax (8:09), which opens up grandly. His reading of this movement is one of those occasions when everything just feels right.
The scherzo is all half-lights and Elder and his players are alive to all the subtleties of the scoring. This movement always puts me in mind for some reason of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream but, as Michael Kennedy says in his notes “the general atmosphere is one of uneasiness.” The playing of the Hallé displays excellent precision until, eventually, the music just vanishes into thin air at the end. The wondrous, tranquil ‘Romanza’ is rapt at the start and as the movement unfolds there’s a genuine glow to the playing. The strings play superbly and there’s also much fine and expressive work from the woodwinds. Elder leads an elevated account of this moving music; you feel that the Delectable Mountains are very much in sight.
Much of the passacaglia finale exhibits unforced good spirits, especially at the start. In the section between 2:32 and 3:24 RVW weaves in melodic snatches of “He who would valiant be” from the Arming of the Pilgrim scene in Pilgrim’s Progress and this underscores the resolute spirit of the music. We hear once again the horn call with which the symphony opened but this time (5:42) it’s in an augmented and climactic version played by the full brass. What began life as a hesitant motif over thirty minutes ago re-emerges confidently and triumphantly and in this performance it’s a most satisfying moment. Quiet recollections of the horn call pervade the soft, serene epilogue, which is played with great refinement by the Hallé. There’s one final reference to Pilgrim as we hear a motif to which the Pilgrim sings the words “I will go forth on my journey”; that seems completely appropriate as this lovely symphony draws to a serene close. This is a captivating performance of the work, fit to stand comparison with any that I’ve heard.
One wonderful thing about exploring the symphonies of Vaughan Williams is that they all reflect different aspects of the man himself. The Eighth is a very different proposition to the Fifth; for one thing, as Michael Kennedy says, it’s the “least serious” of the nine, though he’s careful to point out that this doesn’t mean it lacks a serious side. The work has very strong Hallé connections. It was dedicated to Sir John Barbirolli, Elder’s distinguished predecessor, who conducted the première in Manchester in 1956 and who made the first recording of the piece the following year (review). Since Barbirolli presided over the Hallé’s first period of eminence it’s good to find Elder, who has led it to its second period of eminence, making a recording of it. The symphony has been in their repertoire for a while; my late Seen and Heard colleague, Bob Briggs, enjoyed a Proms performance that Elder and the Hallé gave together as far back as 2008 (review). I was struck by Bob’s comment: “Treated with respect, the music emerged triumphant as a bright and breezy symphonic divertissement – entertaining for both orchestra and listeners.” That comes over in this studio recording also.
I don’t know if RVW designed the work to show off Barbirolli’s orchestra – that may well be the case – but it certainly does show off a good orchestra, such as the present day Hallé. RVW referred to the first movement as ‘seven variations in search of a theme’. Elder brings out all the colour and panache in the music. I particularly enjoyed the great dash with which the second variation is invested while I thought that the third variation almost harks back to the finale of the Fifth. The second movement involves just the wind and brass – this scoring and the fact that the succeeding movement is for strings alone rather suggests RVW may have thought of the piece as something of a ‘Concerto for the Hallé’. In this second movement the playing is consistently crisp and tangy. The musicians seem to be relishing the music, none more so than the first trumpet, Gareth Small, whose rendition of his short, cheeky tune is a delight (0:36).
The strings take centre stage for the Cavatina. What a fine string section Elder has assembled and trained! The scene is set by the lovely tone of the cellos right at the start and all their colleagues take their cue from that expressive, full-toned playing. There are excellent solos from the leader, Lyn Fletcher, whose expressiveness is matched by the principal cellist, Nicholas Trygstad, near the end. I loved this sensitive, refined performance. I also loved Michael Kennedy’s marvellously apt description of the movement as a “beautiful, old-age reverie of farewells to Tallis and larks ascending.” What a felicitous phrase!
In the finale the battery of percussion, silent since the first movement, is well to the fore. The percussion comes over splendidly in this recording, especially the gongs. For the most part this movement is a jeu d’esprit and it’s remarkable to find RVW, then in his eighties, delighting in and still experimenting with orchestral sonorities. This is most emphatically not the music of an old man nor that of a composer whose powers were waning. This symphony – and the Ninth – remains under-appreciated, I feel, but Sir Mark and his excellent orchestra make a most persuasive case for it.
The recordings themselves are very good. The sound for the Eighth is, inevitably, rather closer and more obviously the product of a studio than is the case with the Fifth, which was recorded in concert. Both teams of engineers have done a fine job and in the Fifth I couldn’t detect any audience noise; there’s no applause after the symphony ends. The excellent notes are by Michael Kennedy, still writing with perception and enthusiasm about music by a composer whose work has meant so much to him for getting on for seven decades now. I always learn something from his notes. For example, I didn’t know that the first movement of the Fifth includes some music recycled from some military band music that he was asked to write for a town pageant in 1938.
This splendid disc maintains the high standards of the stream of recordings by Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé. I hope they will continue to record Vaughan Williams symphonies but, above all, I’d love to hear them in RVW’s orchestral masterpiece, Job. I’d give a lot to hear what this partnership might bring to that wonderful score.
John Quinn

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A splendid disc that maintains the high standards of the recordings by Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé.