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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Symphony No. 6 in E minor [32.11]
Symphony No. 4 in F minor [32.20]
Hallé/Sir Mark Elder
rec. live, April 7 (4), November 10 (6) 2016, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
HALLÉ CDHLL7547 [64.55]

I’ve heard all of Sir Mark Elder’s Vaughan Williams releases to date and they’ve impressed me strongly. He displays a seemingly natural affinity with the composer’s music and the response of the Hallé has been consistently fine. Rather to my surprise, though, I’ve found myself hesitating over this latest issue which couples two of VW’s most important symphonic compositions. The performances are predictably fine and with one significant caveat I find Elder’s interpretations thoroughly convincing. What has given me pause for thought, though, is the recorded sound.

As with so many previous releases on the orchestra’s label the recordings were made at live performances in the Bridgewater hall, Manchester with Steve Portnoi in charge of the engineering.

The Sixth symphony is first up. The opening pages are very powerful and when VW moves to syncopated rhythms Elder ensures that the music has the proper amount of rhythmic definition and lift. In these syncopated passages the performance has what I might term galumphing vivaciousness. At the end of the movement VW transforms the syncopated material into the symphony’s most celebrated passage, the big, generous melody which years ago, if memory serves me correctly, served as the theme music for the ITV series Family at War (from 6:22). This theme is calm and noble at the first hearing and then Elder makes sure that its repetition is suitably spacious and imposing. However, whilst there’s much to admire in the performance of this movement per se I felt that it didn’t come across with the degree of punch that I’d expect. For a comparison I turned to Vernon Handley’s very fine 1994 recording with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (review). Admittedly, we’re not quite comparing like for like since the Handley account was set down under studio conditions whereas the Elder version is from a live concert. What’s striking is the immediacy of Handley’s digital recording when played back at the same volume level. The sound has much greater impact and, furthermore, one can hear far more inner detail.

I said I had one significant caveat. Elder takes the Moderato second movement at a disconcertingly swift pace. In fact, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard it played like this. To give you some idea, he takes 7:56 over the movement. I checked recordings by Boult – his EMI recording – Haitink and Previn. These take between 8:59 and 9:41. Handley comes in at 9:15. Elder’s approach avoids undue heaviness, which is welcome. However, to my mind he misses out on the quiet menace in the music and, later, the implacable power at climaxes. Handley’s more measured speed pays dividends; he still moves the music forward but misses none of the power. I’ve played this Elder account several times and still can’t get comfortable with this movement.

The scherzo, aptly described in Michael Kennedy’s excellent notes as “like a hell’s kitchen of jazz and wailing saxophones”, is sharply articulated and strongly projected by the Hallé. That said, I feel that the brighter, punchier sound on the Handley performance is better suited to the music. By comparison, I fear that the recorded sound on this Elder version sounds rather dull. Elder is superb in the last movement, conveying the atmosphere of a ghostly wasteland. Hereabouts the finely controlled playing of the Hallé is much to be admired. Handley makes a fine job of this movement too.

The choleric opening of the Fourth Symphony is powerfully conveyed by Elder and his orchestra; the strength and fiery passion of the music is apparent. He’s equally successful in the more relaxed episodes and as I listened I thought how much I’d like to hear him in Walton’s First Symphony. The slow movement is finely controlled and superbly played but I don’t feel that the recording opens out sufficiently in the ardent climaxes. The scherzo is distinguished by crisp rhythms and plenty of drive, There’s drive, too, in the finale. Elder leads a taut performance that generates a lot of energy and excitement but the music doesn’t leap out of the loudspeakers as it should: whilst I admired the performance very much I felt that here and in the previous movements I was, to an extent, observing the performance from a distance.

I thought that a suitable comparison might be with the fine Liverpool recording conducted by Andrew Manze, which was made in 2016 (review). However, though that modern digital recording is impressive I found that, once again, it was Vernon Handley’s performance dating from 1991(review) that had the greatest impact - and impact is a quality that you certainly want in a recording of this symphony. Handley’s scherzo is splendidly athletic while his account of the finale is volcanic at times. For him the RLPO brass are ideally assertive, especially in the fugue. Handley is a touch steadier and weightier than Elder though I have to say that the drive and energy that Elder brings to the finale is most impressive,

I recall that at least one of my MusicWeb colleagues has previously expressed reservations about the sound quality on the Hallé label recordings, feeling that the sound lacks impact and presence. I must say that I’ve not been bothered by this before but on this occasion, I think that the recording has somewhat blunted the impact of two otherwise excellent performances. However, the recording may well reproduce differently on other equipment and if, like me, you’ve been collecting this impressive VW cycle you’ll certainly want to add Sir Mark Elder’s performances of these two gritty masterpieces to your collection

John Quinn

Previous review: Michael Cookson (Recording of the month)



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