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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Symphony No. 5 in D major (1938-1943) [43:47]
Symphony No. 7, Sinfonia Antartica (1949-1952)* [42:06]
*Sheila Armstrong (soprano)
*Ladies of the London Philharmonic Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
rec. live, 15 December 1994 (No. 5), 27 November 1984 (No. 7), Royal Festival Hall, London. AAD
LONDON PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA LPO-0072 [43:47 + 42:06]

The London Philharmonic are closely associated with the music of Vaughan Williams; indeed, they gave the premiere of the Fifth at a Proms concert in June 1943. They also feature in two of the most distinguished traversals on record - Haitink’s and Boult’s second, both on EMI/Warner. Now we have them on this tempting twofer from the orchestra’s own label. Re-mastered by Deborah Spanton from the original BBC tapes the Fifth and Seventh symphonies are just too long to accommodate on one CD, but as the set is priced at around a tenner it represents solid value. Then there’s the frisson of live performances, with their attendant risk-taking and potential for unexpected energy and insights.
 
In its latest incarnation Haitink’s complete EMI cycle is a real bargain. There are other surveys, among them ones from Handley (CfP) and Previn and Slatkin (both on RCA), but the real surprise for me was discovering the Bournemouth recordings with Kees Bakels and Paul Daniels (Naxos). I was particularly impressed with Bakels’ Seventh, which is very atmospheric and, where appropriate, drenched in drama. His is one of the most gripping and truly symphonic versions of ‘Sinfonia Antartica’ I know; his Fifth - coupled with a powerful Ninth - isn’t far behind.
 
For such a self-effacing conductor Haitink ranges far and wide; quietly refined in Vaughan Williams’ more idyllic works, lofty in Strauss’s quasi-philosophical ones and unforgettably eloquent in late Mahler. He can also disturb and devastate with the trenchancy and weight of his Shostakovich and freeze one’s blood with his Bartók. RVW’s Fifth which, for a wartime symphony, is surprisingly serene, finds him at his engaging and spontaneous best. The silken strings of the gently evolving Preludio have seldom sounded so glorious, or the pulse so natural. What shape and presence too - the tuttis are commanding but never overblown - and the recording sounds remarkably rich and spacious for the Festival Hall.
 
It’s not often that one feels - intuitively at least - that this is how the music should go, but that’s the abiding impression here. Haitink unpacks and unfolds this score with consummate skill, and the tugging rhythms of the Scherzo are controlled with disarming ease. As for the LPO they respond with a rare blend of alacrity and character, and one hears their affection for this music in every bar. The Romanza, with its thematic links to The Pilgrim’s Progress, is as open-hearted as one could wish, and again I’m astonished at the depth and sophistication of this recording, which is far preferable to Haitink’s studio version.
 
Recently I had the pleasure of hearing Haitink’s live RCO Mahler Ninth (review); that shares with this Fifth a calm, all-pervading certainty - perhaps what some might call a profound humanity - borne of accumulated wisdom and an intimate knowledge of these scores. The crisply rendered Passacaglia is ample proof; inner voices are clearly articulated and then subsumed in writing - and playing - of quiet and seamless grace. As for the timps they are simply splendid, as are the strings and woodwinds at the long-breathed close. I just can’t recall a more luminous summation to the symphony than this. I’m also grateful that the deep spell - so carefully cast - isn’t broken by yelps of ‘Bravo’ as the music fades to silence. Indeed, the audience is mouse-quiet - unusual for London in December - and all applause is edited out.
 
This ‘Sinfonia Antartica’, recorded a decade earlier, may be fractionally imprecise at the start but it steadies and builds convincingly to those first cliff-like tuttis. The ever-reliable Sheila Armstrong is firmly evocative in the unforgiving wastes of the Prelude - the accompanying timp strokes, a grim counterpoint, are very well caught - and Haitink carves out some mighty climaxes. The brass are thrilling in their blend and blaze and there’s considerable bottom-end crunch to this recording. It may not sound as well upholstered as the Fifth, but it does have impressive clarity and impact.
 
After that big, Promethean Prelude the Scherzo is altogether more conventional in its mood and manner. Of all the music here it’s apt to sound the most cinematically clichéd, and that’s a crevasse that not even Haitink can avoid. Bakels has greater thrust and weight and he draws the loose musical threads together more effectively, both here and in the Coleridge-inspired Landscape. That said, Haitink is as implacable as anyone, but for sheer, ineluctable tension and a seismic organ Bakels gets my vote every time. Still, the RFH instrument has a Gothic, silent-film-like excess that’s not inappropriate here.
 
The Intermezzo and Epilogue can seem anticlimactic - even episodic - after the cumulative strength of the preceding movements; and so it is here, despite valiant rallies in the latter. The LPO, so refined in the Fifth, aren’t as polished in the Seventh, and like a Revivalist preacher Haitink struggles to inspire his recalcitrant flock. Bakels has no need for such coercion, and he carries everyone with him in a consistently paced and eloquent Epilogue.
 
Apart from boasting good performances Haitink’s EMI/Warner box is ridiculously good value, so all RVW fans should own it. Neither of his Sevenths strikes me as particularly memorable, but this caught-on-the-wing Festival Hall Fifth is everything a live recording should be, but very seldom is: it’s played from the heart and it’s free of the musical lapses or sonic compromises one associates with a live event.
 
A Fifth of rare coherence and character; a sturdy but sporadic Seventh.
 
Dan Morgan
http://twitter.com/mahlerei  

Vaughan Williams review index: Symphonies

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