Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1968)
Job - A Masque for Dancing (1927-30) [43:43]
Symphony No. 9 in E minor (1956-57) [33:33]
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. May 2016, Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway (Job organ part rec. Domkirken, Bergen)
Reviewed in surround 5.0

This Chandos SACD is a generously filled disc, containing, as it does, both Job and the 9th Symphony. Usually Job occupies most of the disc on its own. This performance is a first in another way, so far as I can discover; the first time Job has been recorded by a non-UK orchestra, albeit in the reliable hands of a Vaughan Williams stalwart, Sir Andrew Davis, who has recorded it before with the BBC Symphony. The issue also marks the continuation of the Chandos SACD VW cycle, abruptly stopped by the death of Hickox in 2008. He completed all but the 7th and 9th, so one assumes that Sinfonia Antartica will be also recorded by Chandos in Bergen. That work also requires a prominent organ passage or two. Here Chandos recorded the handful of mighty organ chords in Bergen's Domkirken and edited them smoothly into the texture. Who knows, maybe they did the Sinfonia Antartica chords at the same time.

It is worth reminding ourselves that Vaughan Williams' Job was inspired by the paintings of Blake, not per se by the Book of Job in the Bible. The Biblical account of events takes up a tiny fraction of the forty-two chapters of the Book. Blake's series of twenty-one illustrations, most in several versions, only deal with the drama and not the lengthy philosophising about Man's duty to God. A Wikipedia page allows us to step through the magnificent pictures in order, and that is the best preparation for listening to this performance. Perhaps we should note that, unusually, the splendid booklet cover picture of Job is by Bonnat, not Blake.

This score has been championed primarily by Sir Adrian Boult, who recorded it four times, the best, some feel, being in 1970. Since receiving this Chandos issue for review I have been running through Boult (EMI), Vernon Handley (EMI), Lloyd-Jones (Naxos) and Davis repeatedly, trying to ascertain what it is that attracts me first to Boult, then Lloyd-Jones and Handley and only after them, to Davis. Boult has a fine recording, but not a fine as Handley from 1984, where the whole thing, including the organ, was recorded in the one venue, St Augustine's Church, Kilburn, London. Lloyd-Jones has an excellent recording also in one venue, the lovely Town Hall at Leeds, and brings out rhythmic details and a sense of drama absent from others. Davis has undoubtedly been recorded best of all, his is also the only one to be made in hi-res SACD and surround. That said, in terms of impact Handley's recording in particular yields little to this new Chandos.

Boult does something with the pulse of Vaughan Williams' score that just sounds 'right'. Only one other conductor displays this skill consistently, Barbirolli. However, Barbirolli, though famous for some of the symphonies, did not, so far as I can discover, record Job. VW's Masque for Dancing is full of wonderful transitions. There are nine scenes including an Epilogue, giving plenty of transitional moments. These are the times when Boult's grasp of the score stands out, as does Handley's, especially in the second half. Does this long rumination suggest the new Chandos is less than excellent? No, it is very fine in most respects, just do not expect it to be 'the' recording. If your collection lacks the 1970 Boult, buy it as well.

The Symphony No.9 is not often performed but has been recorded by a wide range of conductors and orchestras. The first performance, given by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1958, was conducted by Sargent. According to Roy Douglas in his memoir about working with VW, Sargent's was not a very sympathetic interpretation. It was not until Boult directed its first recording for Everest that it began to make an impact. Listening to this fine new version one is reminded that such music may have seemed a bit anachronistic in the late 1950s but it was nonetheless an important contribution to the symphonic literature and has in it much of the stuff of greatness. VW revisits the moods of his 6th Symphony especially in the impressive Hardy-inspired opening movement. Overall the impression of a symphony looking forward is stronger than of one looking backward. Ursula Vaughan Williams is quoted in the booklet saying "I thought, well, that is the end of Ralph's life and I can see a turning point. It is leading out into another place. It is extraordinary." One can only agree, and repeated listening is very rewarding.

Coupling a challenging late piece of VW with his great score Job was a very good idea. I suspect many will buy this disc for the famous work and will discover afterwards that they have also bought a wonderful and visionary symphony.

Dave Billinge
Previous review: John Quinn (Recording of the Month)

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