Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis (1910, rev. 1913, 1919) [16.08]
Symphony No. 3 A Pastoral Symphony (1921, rev 1950/51) [36.06]
Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus (1939) [11.27]
Overture: The Wasps (1908/09) [9.34]
Sarah Fox (soprano)
Hallé/Sir Mark Elder
rec. 3-4 November 2012 BBC Studios, MediaCity, Salford, UK (Tallis Fantasia, Wasps); 9-10 September 2013 Hallé/St. Peter’s, Ancoats, Manchester, UK
HALLÉ CDHLL7540 [74.16]

Consisting of four works this is the third volume in a projected complete cycle of Vaughan Williams' symphonies. In 2013 when reviewing volume two (symphonies 5 and 8) I wrote that this cycle would prove to be a distinguished one. The present stunning recording of A Pastoral Symphony serves only to reinforce my view. It may even become acknowledged as the finest of all the sets. By the way I have also written about volume one.

The Hallé has a long tradition of playing Vaughan Williams. No other orchestra knows his works as intimately, music that seems to flow like lifeblood through its veins. Attending concerts at the Bridgewater Hall when the Hallé were playing Vaughan Williams I used to find it strangely satisfying to sit close to the late Michael Kennedy who knew the composer so well and who became his biographer.

The opening work on this disc is the Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis for double string orchestra and string quartet. Vaughan Williams composed this masterwork in 1910 shortly after returning from a short period of study with Ravel. It was first performed the same year in Gloucester Cathedral as part of the Three Choirs Festival. The composer revised the score in 1913 and 1919. Even the relentless ear-battering from its anchoring in the high reaches of the Classic FM ‘Hall of Fame’ cannot lessen my enthusiasm for this work. The Hallé play this work often and its understanding shines through. They give a performance of purity and uplifting spirituality and produces that distinctive ‘English’ sound. It didn’t seem to matter in the slightest that the Tallis Fantasia was being performed in a studio rather than the cathedral or church setting for which it was conceived.

Scored for strings and harp, Five Variants of 'Dives and Lazarus' was composed especially for the New York World Fair in 1939. It was Sir Adrian Boult who introduced the work at Carnegie Hall. Vaughan Williams based it on the traditional tune Dives and Lazarus. Sir Mark imparts an adroitly handled intimacy to this folk infused score with the Hallé responding with some characteristically beautiful playing.

The Overture: The Wasps was written in 1908/09 as incidental music to the Greek satire of that name by Aristophanes. The commission came from the Greek Play Committee at his old university Trinity College, Cambridge. Cast in the form of an overture and seventeen other pieces this sequence of music was premiered in 1909 under the baton of Charles Wood. Vaughan Williams formed a five movement score from the incidental music which was introduced in 1912 at the Queen’s Hall, London. Incidentally in 2005 the Hallé under Sir Mark recorded the world première of the complete incidental music on the Hallé label. From this new 2012 recording the pace is taken swiftly. Especially compelling is the sense of jubilant flight and there's no shortage of bite and vitality.

On his return to civilian life after war service Vaughan Williams began A Pastoral Symphony (his third). He completed the score in 1921. I noticed that the composer undertook some minor revisions in 1950/51 prior to a Hallé performance. Consisting of four comparatively slow movements with a part for wordless soprano this is a work that divided opinion when first introduced. With the title Pastoral meaning anything but “lambkins frisking” as he put it, I see the description as a sardonic response, a type of requiem for the millions of dead and wounded during the First World War. Vaughan Williams had volunteered to serve with the ambulance brigade as a stretcher-bearer in Northern France and his writing seems to contrast the unspeakable sights in the blasted landscapes of the killing fields with the stark beauty of the Corot-like landscape he saw. Perceptive as always, Michael Kennedy wrote “Beneath the symphony’s tranquillity lies its sadness.” I doubt Vaughan Williams’ canvas has ever been portrayed better than in this Hallé recording. With unerringly clear vision Elder displays his profound understanding of the score with a magnificently shaped interpretation. Containing liberal nuances of expression contrasted with plenty of energy and thrust the Hallé produces a compelling atmosphere of time and space. In these hands the opening Molto moderato has a spiritual dignity. I sense a spaciously atmospheric quality that evokes veils of mist over field and river in subdued early morning light. Opened by horn over muted strings there is a deliberate pace to the Lento moderato which conveys a sense of deep reflection. Inspired by an army bugler the composer used to hear practising, the trumpet cadenza sounds like a despairing plea, maybe forgiveness for the slaughter of war. Serving as a Scherzo the short Moderato pesante has a weighty, grinding forward momentum. The highly engaging themes have never sounded better especially those on trumpets and trombones. I also found the final Coda quite magical. Marked Lento, the Finale with Sarah Fox in the passage for wordless soprano has an empyrean quality. In the body of the score the broad melody emits a strong sense of solitude and contemplation before the final transcendent moments. It had me wondering, even knowing the composer’s atheism, whether this might represent the resurrection of the souls of the war dead. This Hallé performance can stand alongside my cherished account with Sir Adrian Boult conducting the New Philharmonia recorded with soprano Margaret Price in 1968 at the Kingsway Hall, London on EMI Classics. Boult’s recording of the Pastoral Symphony also forms part of his powerfully expressive set of the complete symphonies with the London Philharmonic Orchestra/New Philharmonia Orchestra recorded in 1967/71 at London on EMI Classics.

Michael Kennedy wrote the liner-notes with his accustomed scholarship and accessible touch. No problems whatsoever with the sound quality which is clear and well balanced at the same time as having a reasonably wide dynamic range.

This Hallé release must be added to any serious music collection.

Michael Cookson

Previous reviews: John Quinn, Brian Wilson & Michael Greenhalgh

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