Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
The Art of Vaughan Williams - Volume 2
Five variants of Dives and Lazarus [12:27]
The Wasps : Aristophanic Suite [25:26]
Symphony No. 2 (A London Symphony) [44:06]
Hallé Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli (Dives)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
rec. 1944 (Wasps), 1952 (Symphony) 1953 (Dives)
BEULAH 2PD39 [82:00]

Beulah offer us here a beautiful performance of some of the most beautiful music ever penned, the folksong-based Dives and Lazarus, Sir Adrian Boult’s Decca mono recording of the London Symphony, preferable to his EMI stereo remake, still my benchmark for this work, and the entertaining complete suite from the music for a Cambridge performance of Aristophanes, not just the usual Overture, in good transfers on a generously timed album. What’s not to like for VW fans about this Beulah reissue?

This 1953 recording of Dives and Lazarus is otherwise available only on a Barbirolli Society CD, with Symphony No.8 (1956 BBC broadcast), the Tuba Concerto, Greensleeves and The Wasps Overture.  Barbirolli’s commercial recording of Symphony No.8 is also available very inexpensively from Naxos Classical Archives and on another Beulah release (4PDR17, with Elgar Symphony No.2 – Download News 2016/6), making 2PD39 an attractive way to obtain his Dives and Lazarus.

Sir Adrian Boult’s recording of the complete suite from The Wasps is available on an inexpensive Naxos Classical Archives release, coupled with Old King Cole, or on Australian Decca Eloquence, with Job, a masque for dancing.  Beulah have also transferred that recording of Job (4PDR20, with Rawsthorne Street Corner and Hindemith Violin Concerto – review), making the new Beulah release of the Wasps music even more recommendable.

The Wasps Overture is also available on another, less conventional Beulah release: Classical Music for British Transport Films (1PDR33 [74:06]).  The programme, due for release in late September 2016, consists of Johann Strauss II Perpetuum Mobile, Op.257, used for Let’s go to Birmingham (1962), The Wasps Overture, used for Fully Fitted Freight (1957), excerpts from Handel’s Messiah, used for Every Valley (1957), the Lento and Scherzo from VW’s A London Symphony, used for The Scene from Melbury House (1972), Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture, used for A City for all Seasons (1969), and Edward Williams’ Open House for the film of the same name from 1951, a still from which is used for the cover shot. 

The performers are the RPO and Sir Malcolm Sargent (Strauss, rec. 1962), LPO/Sir Adrian Boult (Vaughan Williams, details as for 2PD39, and Handel, rec. 1954), LPO/Eduard van Beinum (Elgar, rec. 1949) and Dennis Brain Ensemble (Williams, rec. 1951).  Those with a penchant for nostalgia can watch some of the films on YouTube – or just listen to the music.

The recordings vary in age from Beinum’s Cockaigne, already rather dated when reissued on Ace of Clubs but made to sound quite tolerable here, to Barbirolli’s Strauss, a stereo recording reproduced in mono here, as on the film soundtrack and sounding none the worse.  This is a novel peg on which to hang an interesting collection of music, as well as reflecting the interests of Beulah’s owner in various kinds of transport.  Only the overlap with some of the music on 2PD39 presents a problem.  Forget about the overlap and enjoy this above all for Beinum’s Cockaigne.  Like Christopher Howell who reviewed it as part of the defunct IMG Great Conductors 2-CD set, the Ace of Clubs reissue was one of my two introductions to this work and to the Cello Concerto – the other was from George Weldon on a more modern stereo World Record Club LP – and, like CH, I still think it a very fine interpretation.  It’s also available on a 4-CD Beulah set Visions of Elgar (1PD15).

You won’t go far wrong with Barbirolli’s Strauss – one of his specialities – and, though Boult’s Messiah is no longer fashionable, it’s interesting to hear these excerpts.  Kenneth McKellar is often thought of as a lightweight and Every Valley has received more forceful performances but I enjoyed hearing that and the other extracts: The people that walked in darkness (David Ward), Pastoral Symphony (with prominent harpsichord), Their sound is gone out (LSO Chorus) and All we like sheep (LSO Chorus again).  If you think period-instrument performances make too little of the Pastoral Symphony and All we like sheep, you’ll find Boult more akin to the large-scale performance which famously reduced Haydn to tears.

The final short work by Edward Williams makes me wonder why we have not heard more of him – a project for Toccata or Dutton, perhaps?

Unless you must have a modern recording of the London Symphony, in which case a recent release from the RLPO and Andrew Manze is very well worth considering (Onyx 4155, with Symphony No.8 – Download News 2016/6) the mono Boult recording remains my benchmark.  You should also consider obtaining Richard Hickox’s unique Chandos recording of the original score of the symphony, with Butterworth’s Banks of Green Willow, but the 1952 Boult remains unchallenged.  If you are looking for the most consistently satisfying accounts of all the VW symphonies the Decca British Composers 5-CD set (mono, with Nos. 8 and 9 in stereo) remains available for around £30, as does the low-bit mp3 set from Amazon – both Download Roundup November 2010 –  ignore the defunct passionato.com link to the Decca.  Otherwise I hope that Beulah will follow this London Symphony with some or all of the remainder of the VW cycle.

All of these recordings were made in mono and no amount of technology can make them sound brand new.  Sometimes tinkering does the opposite, as in the case of the mono VW symphonies when Decca reissued them in electronic stereo on the Eclipse label.  Beulah transcriptions always make the recordings sound better than I remember on LP and that’s especially true of the London Symphony.  1952 is a long time ago and the past is a foreign country technologically, but these transfers from LP are all much more than tolerable.

As with Job, spot sampling with the Decca CD suggests that there is little difference between the two.  The very inexpensive Amazon download, on the other hand, at a very low bite-rate of around 156kb/s, while good enough for listening with earphones or on the Roberts Boombox in the kitchen or bedroom, is really not good enough for playing on an audio system.  The Beulah is, provided you don’t expect a technological miracle, and the performances are ample compensation for any shortcomings.  I have given a link to the Qobuz download rather than the alternatives, as it comes in full lossless sound quality at the same price as iTunes and Amazon, which offer only mp3 and usually at well below the full bit-rate.

Brian Wilson

Availability Qobuz