This must count as one of the more surprising issues to have come my way – though a very welcome surprise. I know that some American conductors have followed the lead of André Previn in performing and recording the Vaughan Williams symphonies. There have also been recorded cycles by two Dutch conductors: one, though not quite complete, by Kees Bakels – which I’ve not heard – and the other, a very fine one, by Bernard Haitink (review). However, I never expected to hear Russian forces performing all nine works. During his all-too brief tenure at the BBC Symphony Orchestra (1978-81) Gennady Rozhdestvensky performed quite a lot of British music and our editor, Rob Barnett has reminded me that the long-defunct Carlton BBC Radio Classics label issued performances by him of the Fifth Symphony and Sancta Civitas (IMP9125, 1995). Yet it’s a delight to see that he continued to investigate and perform British music after his BBC appointment came to an end. Here we have the complete Vaughan Williams symphonies played under his direction in three series of broadcast concerts in 1988 and 1989. The orchestra is the State Symphony Orchestra of the USSR Ministry of Culture of which Rozhdestvensky was chief conductor between 1983 and 1991.
In theory it might have been possible to fit the symphonies onto perhaps five discs. However, Rozhdestvensky performed the cycle in chronological order and Melodiya has preserved that order, even at the cost of a couple of discs with relatively short playing time. I think that’s a defensible decision, especially as the set is offered at a moderate price.
Sea Symphony must have presented challenges to the singers for Walt Whitman’s high-flown imagery is not always easy to comprehend, even for Anglophones. The choir’s English is heavily accented and a good deal of the pronunciation is idiosyncratic. Nonetheless they make a pretty good job of RVW’s chorus parts, not least in the virtuoso third movement, ‘The Waves’. There are a good number of occasion when the inner chorus detail is muddy and/or the choir gets swamped by the orchestra but I don’t think the engineers have balanced the choir fairly against the orchestra. What does impress me is the sheer fervour of the singing. One wonders how much the choir understood of what they were singing – I’m not being unkind here; Whitman’s flowery rhetoric is often difficult to grasp – but they sing with tremendous commitment. Ideally, I’d have liked more quiet singing from them at times – the last few pages are insufficiently hushed and the start of the vast finale lacks mystery. However, the choir’s enthusiasm is infectious.
Unfortunately the Achilles heel of this performance is the contribution of the soloists. For a start, their English pronunciation, never secure or convincing, is often risible and though I started off with an open mind – I hope – I’d grown weary of the mangled words before the end of the first movement. I can understand why the pronunciation of the chorus might not have been accurate but professional soloists such as these should surely have sought the services of a decent language coach. Even though I was following in the vocal score often I had considerable difficulty in discerning what they were singing. More than that, their voices aren’t really suited to the music - Tatiana Smolyakova in particular – and I fear their singing gave me little pleasure. The orchestral playing is vivid and committed, though there are some untidy passages and the internal balance within the orchestra is somewhat wayward at times. As we shall see in a minute, matters were infinitely better a few nights later for the next performance in the series and, so far as the internal balance is concerned, I wonder if the engineers had problems dealing with RVW’s large and disparate forces. Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducts impressively. There were just one or two occasions when I was uncomfortable with his speeds – the Largamente section in the third movement (‘Where the great vessel sailing’) is far too slow, for example - but overall I was convinced by his pacing of the score. I was even more convinced by the fact that he seems attuned to the spirit of the music and I don’t think it’s any accident that the performance is so red-blooded and vital. If only he had engaged Anglophone soloists.
A London Symphony is a conspicuous success. In the first movement Rozhdestvensky achieves good atmosphere in the Lento introduction and then there’s plenty of drive and spirit in the allegro. There’s also sensitivity in the quieter episodes. The orchestra’s dynamics are good and, with better recorded sound, there’s a much more satisfactory internal balance than was sometimes the case in Sea Symphony. The slow movement is very well done indeed with some excellent solo work at various points. The performance is strong on atmosphere and, overall, is memorable. There’s urgency in the scherzo, much of which is lithe and light-footed. In the finale, after an impassioned opening the subsequent march is, perhaps, just a little brisk but not worryingly so. Rozhdestvensky presses forward urgently – just a touch too urgently for my taste – towards the series of towering climaxes but overall he’s very convincing and the Epilogue is most sensitively played. As I said, this performance is a conspicuous success and it shows Rozhdestvensky and his orchestra in a very favourable light.
The gentle modal radiance of the first movement of the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony is well realised though for me Previn and the LSO remain unsurpassed here (review) - but it must be remembered that theirs is a recording made under studio conditions. The Russian orchestra offers much sensitive playing and Rozhdestvensky conducts very sympathetically. A series of excellent wind solos stand out in a very good all-round performance. There’s fine feeling evident in the slow movement where the melancholy in the music is well conveyed. In the scherzo the louder passages are a bit on the heavy side but by way of compensation there are also several passages that are delivered with delicacy – not least the flute and harp episode which is first heard a couple of minutes in. The turbulence and emotion of the finale are successfully conveyed though the orchestra is a bit too closely balanced – or too loud – at times. I prefer a soprano with a lighter timbre than what is offered by Elena Dof-Donskaya but she sings well enough. It’s a shame the applause wasn’t withheld for a few more seconds but overall this is a successful performance.
Rozhdestvensky performed the great central trilogy of symphonies at his next series of concerts, starting with the Fourth. This is a bit of a disappointment. The main tempo for the first movement is too slow: the music is weighty and powerful in Rozhdestvensky’s hands but there’s insufficient forward momentum. I’m sure this is a difficult movement to pace but I don’t think Rozhdestvensky gets it right. His performance is too deliberate and, for me, never really achieves lift-off. The second movement, however, is impressive and passionate while there’s a good deal of vitality in the fiery scherzo. The finale, like the first movement, is just a bit on the steady side. There’s plenty of conviction and weight in the performance but it lacks a crucial bit of animation. Matters improve in the second half - after the quiet, reflective string passage – and hereabouts Rozhdestvensky imparts real drive. However, I’ve heard several better performances of this symphony and in particular Rozhdestvensky can’t hold a candle to the composer’s own white-hot reading from 1937 (review).
I’m much happier with Rozhdestvensky in the serene Fifth. The first movement is well shaped and the Russians play it with no little sensitivity. I feel that Rozhdestvensky gets the music just right and the only caveat is that the sound of the brass a bit full-on at climaxes. There’s plenty of light and shade in the second movement while the radiant Romanza yields up its poetry most pleasingly. The trumpets are a bit bright-toned at climaxes – or, at least, brighter that listeners in the West may be used to – but overall it’s wonderful to hear this rapt, quintessential RVW music played with such sincerity and sensitivity by the Russian orchestra. There’s much to admire in the finale as well though, once again, if the performance has a flaw it lies in the brass tone at climaxes, which is rather too strong and bright. Previn and the LSO – and others – have achieved even more subtle and sensitive results in the studio but this live performance is very good indeed, even if one or two slight fluffs betray that it is live. I particularly liked the affectionately expansive way that Rozhdestvensky conducts the closing pages.
Along with the Fourth, the Sixth Symphony is arguably the most ‘exportable’ of RVW’s symphonies. There’s rather overblown rhetoric in the way the opening gesture is delivered in this performance but once that’s behind us Rozhdestvensky and his team evidence great determination and vigour. The music in compound time is sprightly indeed – I like that – and the Big Tune at the end is relished but not milked. The second movement is well done with the insistent rhythmic figure well delineated. There’s excellent dynamic contrast at times and RVW’s climaxes have menacing power. In the quiet string paragraphs, underpinned by quietly threatening timpani and trumpets, followed by the eruptive main climax I wondered if the orchestra sensed a kinship with the music of their illustrious compatriot, Shostakovich. The scherzo is taut and urgent and the saxophone contributions are suitably oily. RVW’s garish, menacing music and scoring are strongly projected. The chill finale is pretty well controlled. This remarkable music is strange and other-worldly. It’s a huge challenge for a live performance to achieve the same hushed results that can be obtained by the best orchestras and conductors under studio conditions. This performance doesn’t quite meet that standard but it’s pretty good. As a whole this is a fine performance of one of the composer’s greatest achievements and one of the finest of all English symphonies.
In Sinfonia Antartica there’s craggy grandeur in the music right from the start and as the first movement unfolds the bleak, forbidding and endless Antarctic landscape is tellingly evoked. In the loud stretches of music the forthright nature of the Russian brass is something of an advantage on this occasion. We hear the same soprano, Elena Dof-Donskaya, that Rozhdestvensky used in the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony and her voice seems more suited to this role though I would have preferred both the soloist and, especially, the ladies’ chorus to be rather more distanced. The tinkling percussion is a bit too closely balanced in the Scherzo but the penguins are suitably gawky. The ‘Landscape’ movement comes off very well indeed: there’s chilly apprehension at the start and later the lowering menace as the glacier comes into view is all too apparent. The climax has impressive power though, of course, there isn’t the sonic amplitude of Haitink’s 1997 EMI studio recording, which still sounds stunning. Rozhdestvensky’s account of the fifth movement has all the necessary drama, power and atmosphere.
The Eighth Symphony is well done also. The strings and woodwind make very good contributions to the first movement. The Scherzo is crisp and frisky, even if the brass are again a bit powerful. The strings give an impressive display in the Cavatina, their playing very responsive. The finale is balanced bit too close for comfort but the performance itself is successful and one senses that the Russian players are enjoying this extrovert music. The fact that I’ve written less about this symphony than the others shouldn’t be taken as an implicit criticism of the performance: I never feel there’s an awful lot to say about this symphony.
The Ninth is a remarkable creation. I wouldn’t dissent from those who say that, thematically, it revisits old ground. After all, there’s a prominent quotation from the early tone poem, The Solent, which pre-dates A Sea Symphony and which RVW withdrew; indeed, the same theme that’s quoted in the Ninth had been put into A Sea Symphony. What’s remarkable about RVW’s last symphony is the sheer imagination of the sonorities and the orchestral invention: he might have been revisiting some old thematic ideas but he was still keen to experiment, as shown above all by the deployment of a flugelhorn and trio of saxophones. Rozhdestvensky’s reading of the first movement is powerful, conveying RVW’s mysterious, majestic vision very well. I may be doing them an injustice but I have the impression that the intonation of the saxophones isn’t always impeccable. Worthy of mention is the eloquent solo violinist towards the end. In the Andante the composer’s fascinating colours and textures are well realised though the brass section, at least as recorded, is too strong at times. The scherzo has lots of grotesque swagger to it and the saxophones are well to the fore, their tone husky. The strings excel at the start of the finale. The reading of this movement is highly atmospheric and with no little power, though it’s a bit rough-hewn at times. The closing climax is mighty, interspersed with those amazing washes of sound from harps and saxophones. As the applause starts it’s great to hear RVW’s music being cheered by the audience.
It’s time to sum up. I must confess that I approached this set not just with curiosity but also with some doubts. However, I’ve been won over. It’s true that the performances have some rough edges - not least the over-prominence at times of the brass – but these are live performances so one can’t necessarily expect the sophistication of studio conditions. Furthermore, British orchestras, which are the ones that have mostly recorded these works, are infinitely more familiar with these scores than the Russian players will have been. In fact, Rozhdestvensky’s orchestra gives a pretty good account of itself throughout. In addition, the maestro himself seems thoroughly at home in these scores, at least some of which he possibly hadn’t previously conducted very often. Only in the Fourth do I feel that he gets things wrong – and his choice of soloists in A Sea Symphony is regrettable. To set against those misjudgements, there’s great commitment and no little finesse in these performances.
The recorded sound can’t compete with the best studio performances but it’s perfectly acceptable. The audiences are unobtrusive, apart from a few isolated coughs. There’s applause after each performance but it’s not the instant-ovation type of response. Actually, it’s quite good to have a modicum of applause retained because you can tell that these symphonies were warmly received, which is heartening. That, and the quality of the performances and interpretations, should nail the canard that RVW’s music doesn’t ‘travel’. Interestingly, in the booklet only Sea Symphony is noted as the first performance in Leningrad. That implies that all the others had been played in the city before but, in all honesty, I can’t imagine that any of these works had been played much in Russia before then other than by visiting orchestras. One wonders how often any of them have been heard there since these performances.
Clearly this set isn’t going to be a first choice but it’s a cycle that lovers of Vaughan Williams – and all admirers of Gennady Rozhdestvensky – should try to hear. I’m delighted to have heard it and even more delighted that these splendid symphonies were so effectively championed by Russian musicians in their own country.
Masterwork Index: Symphonies 1-3 ~~ Symphonies 4-6 ~~ Symphonies 7-9
CD 1 [65:57]
A Sea Symphony
Tatiana Smolyakova (soprano)/Boris Vasiliev (bass)
The Choir of the Leningrad Music Society/The Choir of the Rimsky-Korsakov Music College
rec. 30 April 1988
CD 2 [43:35]
A London Symphony
rec. 2 May 1988
CD 3 [73:15]
A Pastoral Symphony [38:04]
Elena Dof-Donskaya (soprano)
rec. 3 May 1988
Symphony No. 4 in F minor [35:06]
rec. 28 October 1988
CD 4 [41:23]
Symphony No. 5 in D major
rec. 30 October 1988
CD 5 [77:07]
Symphony No. 6 in E minor [38:58]
rec. 31 October 1988
Sinfonia Antartica [37:45]
Elena Dof-Donskaya (soprano)/USSR State Chamber Choir
rec. 28 April 1989
CD 6 [65:39]
Symphony No. 8 in D minor [26:52]
rec. 30 April, 1989
Symphony No. 9 in E minor [37:41]
rec. 5 May 1989