Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Froissart, Concert Overture, op.19 (1890) [13:20]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Symphony no.5 in D major (1943) [37:08]
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
Japanese Suite, op.33 (1915) [12:32]
Argovia Philharmonic/Douglas Bostock
rec. 21-23 September 2014 (Holst), 3-5 November 2013, Kultur- and Kongresshaus Aarau, Switzerland

The Argovia Philharmonic was a new one on me; the name derives from the Latinised name of the Canton of Aargau – one of the northern provinces of Switzerland – and the orchestra is based in its capital Aarau. Douglas Bostock has been their chief conductor since 2001. He is a figure who is, ironically, probably better-known on the international scene than he is in his homeland, having held posts in Prague, Munich, Tokyo and elsewhere.

But here he is championing British music with the Argovians! We’re constantly told that our best-loved composers, three of whom are featured on this CD, don’t ‘travel’, but I’m really not convinced how true this is any more. Certainly the orchestra, on the evidence of this issue, which is taken from live concerts, seem to have no trouble with the idiom of the music, even though their sound is rather light-weight, owing to the relatively small body of strings (10 firsts, 8 seconds, 6 violas, 6 ‘cellos, 4 double-basses). This lightness is noticeable in the Elgar, where the full orchestra passages sound underpowered, though there is much lovely playing, particularly in the more reflective passages. It is good to have another recording of Froissart. It’s one of the earliest pieces by the composer in which you can hear his distinctive voice coming through, and, with its lyricism and its forthright celebration of the age of chivalry, it makes an excellent opener.

The Vaughan Williams Fifth – his most recorded symphony – is much more problematic. It’s not so much a question of lack of orchestral weight of sound, though that plays a part. It is much more to do with Bostock’s tempi, and to some extent his phrasing of the music. The first movement seems hurried, lacks space. The unusually quick tempo means that it lacks a sense of space. I appreciate Bostock’s desire to keep the music moving, but it does feel rushed, especially in the opening and closing paragraphs. I checked his tempo, and found that (to my surprise if I’m honest!) he is pretty well bang on VW’s metronome mark of crotchet = 80. But the fact that his version of this movement is over two minutes longer than those of many others (e.g. Previn’s and Barbirolli’s) does say something, if only that composers’ metronome marks can be misleading!

However, this is tricky territory; I am aware of how very subjective this can be, and also that performers must adapt to the prevailing acoustic as well as factors such as the size of forces available, as discussed above, and in any case there is much to admire in the playing. The string chords at the start of the Romanza (track 4) are as hushed as they should be, and there are beautifully played woodwind and violin solos at the end of the movement. On the other hand, the Epilogue that closes the work gets off to a poor start, with solo strings far too loud (the general dynamic is marked pianissimo, with solo ’cello just mezzo piano). Some drawbacks, such as the dodgy intonation between horns and violins at the very beginning of the symphony, can be put down to the fact that this is a recording of a live event. But overall, this undeniably has the feeling of a ‘lite’ version of the symphony. Am I being unfair? Could it be, then, that my favourite versions of this masterpiece, which include Mark Elder’s recent one with the Hallé, are too self-indulgent? Pass! The fact is that, as with all great works, there are going to be any number of valid interpretations, so I just have to confess that this one didn’t quite succeed for me, failing to capture the deep spirituality of the work.

The programme is completed by a delightful rarity – Holst’s Japanese Suite of 1915, which is therefore more or less contemporary with the composer’s best-known work, The Planets Suite; indeed the third movement, Dance of the Marionette, is strongly reminiscent, in its repetitive melody passing from one instrument to another (including the celesta), of the central section of Mercury the Winged Messenger. Holst’s take on Japan and its music has practically nothing of The Mikado about it, which is a relief. It uses some beautiful and characteristically plaintive Japanese melodies, notably ‘The Song of the Fisherman’ on track 6, which make a brief re-appearance on track 9 before the porcelain delicacy of the ‘Dance Under the Cherry Tree’. The ‘Dance of the Wolves’ makes an exciting finale, with echoes of Katschei’s Dance from Stravinsky’s Firebird.

So a mixed bag; a not entirely convincing reading of a very great symphony, flanked by highly enjoyable performances of smaller-scale works.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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