The Everest label has been re-launching its back-catalogue in new re-masterings in their original format. This accounts for the running time of only 35 minutes as it is no longer paired with that by Malcolm Arnold, as it was in the issue of fourteen years ago in 2000 (review
The Ninth Symphony was tepidly received by the audience at its premiere by Sir Malcolm Sargent with the Royal Philharmonic and its critical reception was even cool. It was this recording which did most to rehabilitate it in the UK and even popularise it in the United States, where Vaughan Williams was all but unknown. As Sir Adrian Boult says in his brief spoken introduction, its historical importance is enhanced by the fact that the composer died a mere seven hours before the start of the recording sessions.
It remains a bleak, gloom-laden work, difficult for some to appreciate. A previous review aptly characterised it as “brooding and sinister” and I admit to having to work hard to enjoy its grim beauties. Vaughan Williams originally intended it to reflect the plot of Hardy’s “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” and there are also references to his first “Sea Symphony” and echoes of Holst's “Egdon Heath”. However, it is more tempting to hear instead it as a pessimistic verdict on humanity by an old man who had recently lived through the worst atrocities of the twentieth century. There are flashes of warmth, nobility and stoic grandeur but for the most part we are closest to the sound-world of “Job” without the closing consolation, only despair – or, at best, resignation.
The famous utilisation of a trio of saxophones imparts a mood of louche indifference and sneering mockery to the opening movement. The introduction on the flugelhorn to the second movement intensifies the melancholy. In the Scherzo, Satan struts in triumph and the bells in the last movement remind me of Wilfred Owen’s “passing bells for these who die as cattle”. The predominance of minor third lamentation consolidates the sense of hopelessness; the serenity of the English countryside, so often a theme in Vaughan Williams’ music, is veiled by darkness and drizzle.
Eschewing broad melody, this symphony derives most of its appeal from its innovative and atmospheric sonorities. The Everest recording remains a marvel of engineering, especially in its new, cleaned-up incarnation of the original, three-track magnetic tape.
Boult’s advocacy results in the perfect balance between drama and lyricism and the playing of the LPO is impeccable.
Previous review: John France
Masterwork index: Symphony 9