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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers


Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Symphony No. 4 (1934) [33:57]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Masonic funeral music K. 477 (1785) [6:45]
Ave verum corpus K. 618 (1791) [4:40]
‘Munich’ Kyrie in D minor K. 341 (1781) [9:01]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Overture: The Creatures of Prometheus Op. 43 (1801) [5:27]
BBC Chorus and Choral Society; BBC Symphony Orchestra/Antal Doráti
rec. 11 May 1965, Syracuse, New York (Vaughan Williams); 15 August 1966, Royal Albert Hall, London (Mozart); details of Beethoven recording not given.

Antal Doráti was a prolific recording artist, now best remembered for his complete set of Haydn symphonies and also for a series of twentieth century works, notably Stravinsky, Bartók, the second Viennese school and Messiaen. His characteristic virtues were meticulous preparation – he was a famous orchestral trainer – driving energy and forthright interpretation. He could sort out the most complex textures. He was perhaps not always the subtlest of interpreters but at his frequent best he brought magic to the scores he conducted. Fortunately, he made many of his recordings for the celebrated Mercury label, the superb recording quality of whose later recordings can still be enjoyed through their many reissues. For an overview of his legacy see here.

This disc, however, derives from a different project, to issue some of Doráti’s concert performances which were never commercially recorded. The main interest here is Vaughan Williams’ Fourth Symphony. This is the most savage of his symphonies, one which the composer himself said later he didn’t like much, but which, along with the Walton First and Bax Sixth, vividly evoke for a later listener the tense times of the 1930s in which they were written. Although very dissonant for VW it is not particularly so by the standards of Stravinsky or Bartók. It is interesting to hear such a work interpreted by a conductor from the central European tradition. This could be controversial. At one time Karajan conducted a good deal of British music, but he later gave it up. When asked why, he said that the critics always said of his performances ‘Yes, but’. There was a great deal of parochial protectionism at the time. This has largely but not completely broken down.

This performance is fierce and confident. Particularly impressive is the string playing, with the violins soaring high in fast exposed passages with tricky rhythmic patterns. The security and confidence they display is very exciting. I also noted the explosive pizzicati Doráti required from all the strings at the first Meno mosso – almost as strong as the celebrated Bartók pizzicato where the string is allowed to slap against the fingerboard. He also handles the complicated passages where different themes overlap at different speeds with great clarity. In the slow movement the intertwining lines on the wind instruments are finely detailed. The flute ends the movement on the low E, incidentally, as in VW’s revision. The scherzo is fast, furious and precise and Doráti enjoys the humour of the lumbering trio. In the finale I particularly noted that the oompah bass, a feature which might seem odd to a continental conductor, is not only played with gusto but is also made sinister. The whole work is cogently interpreted and presented. This performance shows Doráti to be as at home in this idiom as he is in that of the continental modernists; as a performance – though not as a recording – this is fully comparable to a good modern performance, such as my benchmark, the one by Vernon Handley (CfP 575310-2 review).

I don’t know whether Doráti conducted any other VW – possibly not, or it would surely be here. Instead, the disc is completed, or rather begins, with three short Mozart works. This is very much 'old school' Romantic Mozart, before the period performance movement had properly got going. The Masonic funeral music is rarely heard in concert but makes a good item for recording and responds well to this approach. The Ave verum corpus is rich and rather heavy, though beautifully sung by the BBC Chorus. The Munich Kyrie, an isolated movement, is another rarity and gets a vigorous performance. As a kind of encore – it is not given a track listing or mentioned on the cover – we get Beethoven’s Prometheus overture, given an energetic outing but with no details of when or with which orchestra.

Unfortunately the recording quality of nearly everything on the disc is very poor – the Beethoven is much better than the rest. The VW symphony was recorded in New York so at first I suspected the New York engineers, but the Mozart works were recorded at a Proms concert in London and are, if anything, rather worse, with a momentary tape drop-out in Ave verum corpus. The sound is thin and shallow, the balance between wind and strings in the symphony favours the strings too much and there is a good deal of background hiss. Recording quality is better now, but for comparison I listened to the Kertesz version of the Masonic funeral music (Decca E4257222) which dates from 1969, and the Colin Davis one of the Munich Kyrie (Philips 4128732), which is from 1971 and they are far superior. The result is that these recordings are of historical interest only. I wonder whether they were taken off-air and recorded on cassettes.

The disc comes in a paper sleeve, with the front and back labels for a jewel case which the purchaser must provide. The sleeve-note gives only the briefest information about the recordings and no texts, though the person interested in these recordings will presumably have them already. Applause is included. For Doráti fans only.

Stephen Barber



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