Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Symphony No.5 in D major (1938-43) [39:01]
Symphony No.8 in D minor (1953-55) [29:23]
Hallé/Sir Mark Elder
rec. live, 9 November 2011 and in rehearsal, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, England (Sym 5); 3 February 2012, BBC Studios, MediaCityUK, Salford, England. (Sym 8)
HALLÉ CD HLL 7533[68:24]
Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony was premiered on 24 June 1943. It had been written over the previous five years. Here in the midst of the ravages of war, was a vision of Peace Eternal. The symphony uses themes taken from music Vaughan Williams had been writing for many years for a dramatization of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.
This symphony means a great deal to me personally for its beautiful mysticism, especially implicit in the Romanza movement helped me to recover from a serious illness in the mid-1970s. I was listening then to Sir John Barbirolli’s celebrated 1962 EMI recording. To my mind its emotional and spiritual intensity has never been surpassed, not even by this new album which is very good. It can be ranked for its undoubted merits with any of the leading recordings of this glorious symphony. These merits I will come to a little later in this review.
The Romanza slow third movement must be played with the utmost warmth and sensitivity. Michael Kennedy has said that it can be placed alongside the Larghetto of the Elgar Second Symphony as the high peaks of English romantic symphonic art. It is in this sublime movement that most of the Pilgrim music occurs. The agitation at its centre is Pilgrim’s cry “Save Me Lord! My burden is greater than I can bear”. The music culminates in an impassioned Alleluia and it fades away into one of the most magical and radiant codas in all music: high tremolando strings shimmer over distant horn-calls and the lower strings then reply in compassionate contemplation.
Sir Mark Elder just misses Barbirolli’s impassioned intensity but his reading has great merit nonetheless. The clarity of the recording is excellent; instrumental balance and individual virtuosity in all departments impress. Elder suggests further shades of meaning particularly in the scherzo movement which comes off quite brilliantly. The impish humour is cleverly drawn but not overstated or made brash to overbalance the basic religiosity of the work.
It was Barbirolli who, in 1956, premiered the 8th Symphony and it was to ‘Glorious John’, as RVW described Barbirolli, that the Symphony was dedicated. I like to think of this symphony as being very like Beethoven’s eighth symphony - Beethoven’s Little Symphony. Both have much energy and high spirits. Vaughan Williams’ score is remarkable for its youthful outlook. He could still keep on surprising us even in his eighties! The orchestration is supremely imaginative; in fact I would suggest that this work is RVW’s Concerto for Orchestra - all the players have virtuoso parts. Much emphasis is given to the percussion section: RVW uses vibraphone, xylophone, tubular bells, glockenspiel and three tuned gongs that dominate the outer movements. The first movement’s opening mood set by trumpet and celesta is extraordinary. The second movement is I think an affectionate parody of English brass band music. The third movement for strings returns us to Thomas Tallis country - the Hallé strings shine beautifully here. The Finale is a tour de force for the percussion section. Elder’s reading is first class.
Although this new recording cannot displace the Barbirolli readings – especially of RVW’s glorious Fifth, this new album has much to commend it.
See also reviews by John Quinn, Michael Cookson, Michael Greenhalgh
This new album has much to commend it.