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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872–1958)
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis [16:08]
‘Pastoral’ Symphony (Symphony No.3) [36:06]
Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus [11:27]
Overture: The Wasps [9:34]
Sarah Fox (soprano)
Hallé/Sir Mark Elder
rec. 3-4 November 2012, BBC Studios, Media City, Salford (Tallis Fantasia and Wasps Overture), 9-10 September 2013, Hallé St. Peter’s, Ancoats, Manchester. DDD.
HALLÉ CDHLL7540 [74:16] 

John Quinn having beaten me to the draw in his review of this disc, I would normally have included it in my next Download News with a brief comment of my own and added a link to classicsonline.com where you can obtain the download.  Having set down my thoughts before I noticed his review, and having enjoyed this recording so very much, I couldn’t let it go at that.

I first got to know the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony from Sir Adrian Boult’s 1952 mono recording for Decca when it was reissued on the Ace of Clubs label (ACL311, with Symphony No.5) and later, in the same coupling, in ‘electronic stereo’ on Eclipse ECS607. Though the sound quality even in modern refurbishment cannot compete with more recent versions, including Boult’s own remake for EMI, now in a Warner box set, that remains my benchmark in its most recent reincarnation on the Decca British Music Collection set of the complete symphonies (4732412).  The Eloquence single release of Nos. 3 and 5 (4786046) is now download only.

The late Michael Kennedy writes in the Hallé booklet that he tends to think of the Pastoral as VW’s most original and greatest symphony and I’m not about to argue with that.  It certainly emerges as such from the Boult recording and from this new recording by Mark Elder.  The surprise is that, if anything, his account is even more magical than any that I have heard, including Boult (mono and stereo), Haitink (Warner/EMI box set), Hickox (Chandos) and Handley (Classics for Pleasure). I say ‘surprise’ but it may not come as any surprise to those who have been following Elder’s recordings with the Hallé in general and his earlier Vaughan Williams releases in particular (Symphonies 5 and 8; Symphony 2; The Wasps).

I once heard the opening of the Pastoral Symphony compared to soaring high over the cliffs of Dover and the English Channel en route to the landscape of Northern France. It was there that Vaughan Williams served as an ambulance orderly in World War I which forms the background to this work.  That comparison came even more to mind in hearing this and it isn’t just the evident superiority of the Hallé recording: the Hickox in particular comes in excellent sound, available on SACD and as a 24-bit download – review of earlier CD release and DL News 2013/11.  NB: the classicsonline.com link to the stereo Boult recording of Symphonies nos. 3 and 5 given there no longer obtains: 7digital.com have it for £6.99.

Where most conductors take us floating away from England to France, Kees Bakels (Naxos 8.550733) whisks us away in a modern jet aircraft.  Though this recording, coupled with the Sixth, has much to recommend it, not least the links which he suggests between these two ‘wartime’ symphonies, I greatly prefer Elder in this movement: it’s not so much a matter of tempo as of the extra urgency which Bakels injects.  Though he is actually slightly slower than Elder overall and considerably slower than Boult (mono and stereo), the impression is otherwise and there are too many points at which he seems to be at odds with VW’s markings.

The paradox is that, though the pastoral landscape is not that of England, in so many ways this is VW’s most English symphony and Elder and his team bring that out superbly, too.  The haunting trumpet-calls in the second movement apparently recall an inexperienced bugler mistakenly playing a seventh instead of an octave. The effect is to recall Wilfred Owen’s ‘bugles calling for them from sad shires’, with the emphasis as much on the sad shires as the bugler.  As I have set down my thoughts I find that I have talked – or written – myself into agreeing with John Quinn – review – and making this a Recording of the Month.

As an aperitif for the symphony we have the wonderful Tallis Fantasia, a work far superior to The Lark Ascending which constantly seems to be ‘the nation’s favourite music’ on Classic FM.  The Lark is a very pleasant piece but no match for the masterpiece which VW made out of one of the simplest of Tallis’s compositions, intended for congregational singing and included in Archbishop Parker’s Psalter (1567).  It receives a beautiful performance, emphasising the contemplative nature of the music.

It’s Sir Adrian Boult who again provides my Tallis benchmark, with the LPO on Lyrita SRCD.336 – review: also available on one of two budget-price 4-CD sets released in 2009 to celebrate the label’s 50th birthday, SRCD2338 – review and review.  Boult and Elder take the music at very much the same basic pace: overall they are within a whisker of each other and very close also to Andrew Davis on one of the best bargains in the catalogue (Warner Apex 0927443942, with The Lark Ascending and a powerful performance of Symphony No.6).  This is music that needs to have air around it and it receives that from all three of these performances, though, if forced to choose, I’d have to take the Boult to my Desert Island.

If there is anything in the twentieth-century English repertoire more beautiful than the Tallis Fantasia it must be the Five Variants of ‘Dives and Lazarus’.  The underlying folk-song clearly made a massive impression on the composer and he turned it into hauntingly beautiful music.  Elder’s performance is a touch less luscious than the ideal version lodged somewhere at the back of my mind but that’s better than wallowing in the music or not imbuing it with enough feeling, as on an otherwise very valuable Naxos recording containing some rare Vaughan Williams (8.557798 – review and review).

I’d be loath, however, to forego the 1997 Chandos recording on which Richard Hickox conducts the LSO, not least because it’s coupled with an excellent version of Five Tudor Portraits (CHAN9593 – available on CD and as mp3 and lossless download from theclassicalshop.net). It’s far superior to the only modern alternative on Hyperion, though that offers a good performance of the Mystical Songs.

The Wasps Overture rounds off the recording in fine style, though I could have done without being roused from the contemplative mood inspired by the rest of the recording, especially as Elder and the Hallé have already given us the complete Wasps score.

I listened to this release as a download from classicsonline.com, in which form it sounds very well and comes with the booklet in pdf form.  Those not prepared to download will find it and other Hallé CDs available at an attractive price from MusicWeb International.  There are purchase buttons for both above.

Brian Wilson

Another review ...

When MusicWeb International recommends came to suggest the finest recording of RVW’s Tallis Fantasia, in common with six other colleagues I opted for the 1963 City of London Sinfonia/Sir John Barbirolli (EMI 6279102). In this new Hallé release, under Mark Elder’s direction, the Hallé is a magnificent body of strings and Elder’s recording is inevitably finer, allowing you to appreciate more of the detail of a work scored for double string orchestra and string quartet. Elder’s opening is arrestingly still, then expectant in its violins’ high sustained note. The Tallis theme isn’t quite as rich and dignified as with Barbirolli, yet it has a more restless, urgent propulsion which leads naturally into the greater angst of its appassionato take-up by first violins. You may prefer Barbirolli’s more silky assurance at this point. In Elder's hands the second orchestra’s echoing of the development of the theme from tr. 1, 4:12 is eerie, although it’s more distanced and thereby ghostlier still in the Barbirolli recording. The solo string quartet comes into prominence from 6:01, its presentation marked poco più animato. Possibly the poco element isn’t emphasized enough because, while Elder brings great purity and a dance-like quality, Barbirolli gets across more of a folky character and an element of human fragility. He also realises the climax better. At this point (11:01) Elder has an epic grandeur and distance.

In his booklet note the late RVW expert Michael Kennedy claims the Pastoral Symphony is his most original and greatest. Elder certainly shows it to be his most original but for greatest I’d look to the more compelling structural cohesion of Symphonies 4-6. The Pastoral Symphony is haunting and unsettling. Elder doesn’t allow you an easy listen, but I believe he faithfully follows RVW’s intentions. With Elder the opening movement is about burgeoning. This is an evocation of pastoral activity, like the gentle fluttering of flora and fauna in the breeze, a multiplicity of short solos echoing each other in accord and in association with this an appreciation of calm. I compared the 2002 recording by the London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox (Chandos CHSA 5002). Hickox takes a slightly more measured approach which makes the sense of calm, benign pastoral, more central from the outset. When the second theme is first introduced by the cellos (Elder tr. 2, 2:36) its whiff of urgency is immediately smoothed out by Hickox in the clarinet’s repeat and elaboration. In Elder the clarinet simply adds to and furthers the cellos’ activity. Elder’s development (from 3:40) is less troubled than Hickox’s, offering no more than a slight quickening and swelling to offset the calm of the recapitulation. Elder’s climax of the return of the second theme is almost nonchalant, because in his account calm has only gradually become the real order of things.

If the first movement is about beginnings, the second and slow movement is about endings. Kennedy quotes RVW’s mention of ‘a wonderful Corot-like landscape in the sunset’. However the setting is wartime France ... and how slow? RVW’s marking is Lento moderato. At 10:23 Hickox stresses the first element; at 8:51 Elder emphasises the second. With Elder the contours are clearer, the structure more apparent, the mood more troubled and dramatic. So the second theme on viola and flute (tr. 3, 1:28), a kind of mirror reflection of the opening theme on horn, gradually becomes more anxious and writhing in nature whilst still maintaining an inherent dignity. The movement’s second section (3:57) spotlights a natural trumpet solo, a refracted Last Post which Elder makes a pained, alien presence with a sinister edge, at the end of which there’s a tutti outcry. This dissipates into the earlier sighs of dusk and at the return of the bugle evocation, on natural horn, the clarinet weaves the opening theme alongside it, a more happily balanced union with Elder than Hickox. The sense here is that the natural and the unnatural can co-exist and calm will eventually ensue.

In the Scherzo RVW treats the war-machine comically as a lurching, lumbering mass of futility. Even the Trio’s sprightly parade of a dashing trumpet tune seems frivolous alongside the naturalness of the airborne freedom of the flutes and the exquisite gossamer coda. Elder being somewhat faster than Hickox makes the Scherzo more jarring. The Trio (tr. 4, 1:26) is brusque in its dazzle and garish in what seems a more nightmarish dash. Hickox suggests more ambivalence in the splendour of the Trio’s military ostentation, but Elder more jocularly points the transformation of its elements in the coda (4:07). The Scherzo’s opening theme now glitters on celesta as a weird beneficence.

The finale opens with a wordless soprano solo. Rebecca Evans for Hickox treats this as a beautiful folksong heard across a valley, at some moments more prominent than others. With Sarah Fox for Elder there’s a touch of agitation in the voice. The high notes contain an element of protest, even a hint of ululation and the accompanying timpani roll is more ominous. This makes sense both in the context of the symphony as a whole and the development of this movement. The return of this theme is marked agitato in the cor anglais (tr. 5, 4:51) and appassionato when it becomes the movement’s fff climax on high strings (7:03). The movement comes alive in an atmosphere of threat and response of defiance. In sum Elder’s interpretation vividly highlights the troubled undercurrents of the work and seems especially apt to the present time of reflection on 1914.

In Dives and Lazarus Elder's opening statement of the theme is calm and serene. It is marked Adagio and with a total timing of 11:27 he gives the work space and breadth. The 1997 London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox account (Chandos CHAN 9593) takes 10:35 and at the beginning you can feel Hickox moving the tune forward. His violins’ undulations over the theme in the cellos and violas don’t blend in so gently with the rest. Elder paces the work better with Variant 1 (tr. 6, 3:22) more relaxed and expansive, Variant 2 (4:26) even more expansive before the violins begin to cavort and become passionately affirmative. He brings quite a swing to Variant 3 (6:24), which introduces a violin solo and again the body of violins becomes passionate. Variant 4 (7:45) has a sense of gathering to a peroration in breezy affirmation. Variant 5 (8:58) is a grand, closing statement with the strings divided into 15 parts before becalming with a wonderfully expressive cello solo — I presume from Nicholas Trygstad. Hickox shows fine detail in this variant but Elder is more emotive with a sense of fulfilment and his is now, I’d say, the finest recording available.
 
The Wasps overture (tr. 7) makes a satisfying bonus. The wasps themselves buzz venomously but the first theme (0:53) is light and merry, the second theme (1:15) of a rich pomp but Elder also makes it sweep forward in comfortable grandeur. The big tune, the third theme (3:15), first appears warmly on violas and horns before the violins take over with consummate ease and sunny disposition. That big tune just neatly layers over the first theme when they are finally combined. This 2012 account is more sonorous than Elder’s 2005 one when he recorded the complete Wasps score (Hallé CDHLD 7510), the wasps more scary, but the earlier recording finds more mischief in the first theme.

Michael Greenhalgh

Previous review: John Quinn