RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Ralph VAUGHAN WILIAMS (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; Domkirken, Bergen
CHANDOS CHSA5180 SACD [77:29]
Sir Andrew Davis recorded a complete Vaughan Williams symphony cycle between 1990 and 1995 (review). That was with the BBC Symphony Orchestra during his time as their distinguished Chief Conductor and, interestingly, then as now he paired the Ninth Symphony with Job. That was one of the two discs from the cycle that I acquired at the time – the other was the recording of Sea Symphony. Though that series of recordings is now over twenty years old I don’t believe that this new Chandos disc heralds the start of a new Davis cycle. Rather, I suspect it comes under the heading of unfinished business for the label. The Ninth was, I believe, one of only two VW symphonies – the other was Sinfonia Antartica - which the late Richard Hickox did not record for them. Since Hickox's untimely death Andrew Davis seems to have inherited his mantle as the label’s conductor of choice for English repertoire so perhaps the intention is that he should complete the unfinished Chandos cycle: that would be fitting.
The first thing that must be said is that the new Chandos recording sweeps the board sonically. The 1995 Davis DDD recording (“Davis 1”), originally issued by Teldec, was pretty good, as you might expect given that the engineering was in the hands of Tony Faulkner and Mike Dutton with Andrew Keener producing. However, the new Chandos (“Davis 2”), which is a DSD recording, is just magnificent. There’s space round the sound of the orchestra, detail is abundant and in a recording with great dynamic range the loud passages have real impact. As for the organ contribution, well, we’ll come to that in a moment. One thing I will say, though, is that I also dug out for comparison Vernon Handley’s digital recording with the LPO. That recording, which I have as an EMI Eminence release, was made as long ago as 1983 in St Augustine’s Church, Kilburn, London and engineered by Mr Bear (also Classics for Pleasure). Frankly, I was surprised how well it stood up in comparison with the two more modern recordings. It can’t match the sonic splendour of Davis 2 but I thought it had more immediacy and presence than Davis 1.
Interpretatively there’s not a great deal to choose between the two Davis recordings though I think that such differences as there are incline me towards Davis 2. Sir Andrew now moves the ‘Introduction’ forward a fraction more than he did in 1995 and I really like the airy sound of the Bergen woodwinds. The principal flute and bassoon make a fine impression in the ‘Pastoral Dance’ which Davis brings to a warm climax. The noble tune of ‘Saraband of the Sons of God’ is fine and stately. The pacing was a bit broader in Davis 1 but I prefer the Bergen speed. The full orchestra’s reprise of the tune is majestically played.
Satan arrives in Scene II and there’s little difference between the two Davis recordings in this section; in both Satan is a malevolent presence. The ‘Minuet of the Sons of Job and their Wives’ (Scene III) has gentle formality. The music was taken a little faster in Davis 1 but the Bergen speed works better. The entry of Satan (track 4, 2:52) is properly brazen and the orchestra plays this passage with terrific power, aided and abetted by the fine Chandos sound. I really admire the lovely quiet string playing at the start of ‘Job’s Dream’ (Scene IV) and then the repose is shattered by the arrival of Satan (track 5, 1:57) and the nightmare visions to which he subjects Job. Davis takes this passage very quickly indeed and the result is a frightening Pagan whirl. However, I remember when I first heard Davis 1 many years ago that I thought this passage was a bit rushed and I have the same feeling with Davis 2. Vernon Handley doesn’t take this Allegro quite so briskly but, paradoxically, I find that he injects even more bite and venom into the music as a result. It seems to me also that the side drum is a little too prominent in Davis 2; the instrument is better integrated in Davis 1. The Bergen Philharmonic treat us to some very refined woodwind playing in the ‘Dance of the Three Messengers’ (Scene V) and the subsequent funeral cortege for the dead members of Job’s family has a pronounced Ravelian feel to it.
So we come to the ‘Dance of Job’s Comforters’ (Scene VI). The Bergen saxophonist is ideally wheedling in this passage and the jagged orchestral contributions are thrust home very acutely. In Davis 1 the passage is taken more quickly and as a result the BBCSO’s saxophonist can’t be as insinuating. Tempted beyond endurance by these hypocrites, Job finally snaps and curses God. At once VW unleashes an horrific vision of Satan seated in triumph on the throne of God. Here an organ is added to the huge orchestral forces. It’s pretty usual for the organ to be dubbed on to a recording unless the sessions take place in a hall that has a suitable organ in situ. In Davis 1 the organ of the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge is used and Sir Andrew, a former organ scholar of the college, does the honours himself. The result is pretty potent but it pales beside the stupendous sound of the Rieger organ in the Domkirken, Bergen. The same instrument made an impressive contribution to Edward Gardner’s recording of Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass (review) but this is in a different league. I’ve heard almost all the recordings of Job but never have I heard this climax delivered with such brazen, reedy power. It’s a totally overwhelming, frightening moment, just as the composer surely imagined it.
In a miraculous transformation VW moves seamlessly into ‘Eliahu’s Dance of Youth and Beauty’ (Scene VII) with its ravishing violin solo. The radiant violin line against the softest of accompaniments is balm to the soul after the preceding turbulence. Here the solo is beautifully played by the Bergen concertmaster, Alexander Kagan. Michael Davis (Davis 1) and David Nolan (Handley) are no less poetic. This seraphic section harks back to The Lark Ascending and the superbly defined Chandos sound allows us to hear both the solo instrument and the beguiling accompaniment in an ideal fashion. The luminous ‘Pavane of the Sons of the Morning’ is beautifully done by Davis and the Norwegian orchestra.
Scene VIII brings Satan’s last brief roll of the dice but he is banished and order is restored with the joyful ‘Galliard of Sons of the Morning’. Following this the ‘Altar Dance’ is beneficent and tranquil in the wake of Job’s tribulations. Finally, the ‘Epilogue’ is serene. Here the music of the ‘Introduction’ is revisited and, as in that section, we find the new Davis performance has a little more flow to it than was the case in 1995.
It’s interesting that Davis should have recreated the same coupling of Job and the Ninth Symphony. VW wrote what was to be his last symphony in 1956 and 1957. It’s not the easiest of his symphonies to grasp – it took me a little while – but I think it’s under-appreciated and still too infrequently performed. In that latter context I was delighted to see just recently that Vladimir Jurowski has performed it with the LPO. His name may not immediately spring to mind in connection with this symphony but it seems that he made a very fine job of it (review). It’s great to find conductors such as him ready to take on this enigmatic score.
The Wessex of Thomas Hardy and specifically his novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles inspired VW in this symphony. He may well have been in his 80s when he wrote it but I don’t believe there was any significant dimming of the creative flames. Furthermore, that willingness to experiment with orchestration and sonorities that had been such a feature of his two preceding symphonies was again much in evidence. This time VW included in his orchestra a trio of saxophones and a flugelhorn, giving these instruments important roles.
Indeed, the saxophone trio is deployed right at the start of the first movement, their timbre used to add a mystical, legendary quality. Much of the first movement is troubled and questing in nature. I hear distinct echoes of the Sixth Symphony – also in E minor – and of Sinfonia Antartica. After a powerful climax a lovely violin solo - Alexander Kagan again – ushers in what annotator Stephen Connock rightly describes as “[a] period of concentrated, brooding calm”. In fact, this mood sustains the music through to the end of the movement. Here the flugelhorn adds a novel touch to VW’s inspired textures. Davis handles these concluding minutes expertly and though his earlier recording is good he manages this conclusion better this time round.
The flugelhorn introduces the second movement with an extended unaccompanied solo. The theme is taken from the early tone poem The Solent (1903) (review). The melody will be more familiar from Sea Symphony where VW reused it to set the words “And on its limitless heaving breast, the Sea.” Here in the Ninth lyrical material derived from this melody vies with a very percussive, strongly rhythmical theme. The latter material is projected strongly in this Bergen performance; in the earlier Davis recording it’s played a bit more slowly and with greater weight but I prefer the Bergen way. The movement ends with one last, wistful airing of the Solent theme. Eloquently played by the Bergen orchestra, this concluding passage is more magically rendered than in Davis’s earlier recording. I wonder if this use of the theme to which VW had set words by Walt Whitman in Sea Symphony represented one last doffing of his cap to the American poet whose verse had been so important to him?
I’m reminded of the Sixth Symphony again in the Scherzo – and also of the Fourth. The prominence of the saxophones in itself offers one parallel with the Sixth where VW used just one sax – a tenor instrument – in the scherzo. There’s a fugal episode part way through this movement (from 2:15) which is begun by the saxophones, entering one after another. Was this, I wonder, the first occasion that a trio of saxophones had been used to initiate a fugue in a symphonic movement? There’s plenty of power – and dynamic contrast, too – in this Bergen recording; the performance has genuine bite and panache. The finale is a remarkable movement; there’s so much incident and invention packed into it. Not only is there plenty of evidence of the composer’s lyrical melodic gifts but also his ability to write music of strange power is well to the fore. All this is very well played by the Bergen Philharmonic and Sir Andrew demonstrates a very sure touch in leading the performance. At 5:05 the violas intone an archetypical VW melody. Thereafter the music gradually increases in power and urgency until at 9:33 we reach what will be the composer’s last symphonic climax; its rugged power does not disappoint. His powers of imagination persist to the very end and the extraordinary closing bars in which loud chords for the full orchestra are eerily punctuated by the three saxophones. It’s one more stroke of vivid imagination from this endlessly inquisitive composer.
It’s time to sum up this disc. Sir Andrew’s new version of Job is a fine achievement and in terms of recorded sound it has to be the finest on the market. It’s also superbly played. There are a few points where Vernon Handley still has the interpretative edge as far as I’m concerned but his recording, though it sounds remarkably good for its age, can’t compete with the marvellous SACD sound that Chandos provide for Davis. Ralph Couzens, assisted by Gunnar Herleif Nilsen, has engineered the recording superbly. On sonic grounds Davis 2 trumps Davis 1 and where there are points of difference in the interpretation the newcomer is to be preferred every time. The same comments apply to his two recordings of the Ninth Symphony.
So, here we have two very important Vaughan Williams scores – one of them, Job, a masterpiece – in top class performances and magnificently recorded. Expert notes by Stephen Connock set the seal on what must surely be a mandatory purchase for all Vaughan Williams enthusiasts.
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