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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
The Complete Symphonies
Yvonne Kelly, Catherine Bott (sopranos), Brian Rayner Cook (baritone)
London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra / Bryden Thomson
rec. 1987-90, St. Jude’s Church, Central Square, London
Texts included
CHANDOS CHAN9087-91 [5 CDs: 359:26]

In recent years, several new cycles of Vaughan Williams symphonies have emerged – from Sir Mark Elder, Andrew Manze and, most recently from Martyn Brabbins - and, as they’ve evolved, we’ve covered them on MusicWeb International. We’ve also reviewed the Chandos SACD cycle, begun by Richard Hickox and recently completed by Sir Andrew Davis. Some of the older cycles, including those by Sir Adrian Boult – both his original and not-quite complete Decca series and his later re-make for EMI – by André Previn and by Gennady Rozhdestvensky have all had their fair share of coverage in these pages. However, the first Chandos cycle, set down by Bryden Thomson between 1987 and 1990, has largely escaped our scrutiny because the cycle was first released before MWI was founded. In 2006 David Harbin considered A London Symphony as part of the set An Introduction to Ralph Vaughan Williams (review) Brian Wilson also reviewed that set a few years later, commenting also on Sinfonia Antartica and the Ninth – as separate releases. I have fond memories of the sterling work that Bryden Thomson did as Principal Conductor of what was then the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra (1968-73 and subsequently making guest appearances with them) so when an opportunity presented itself to review his Vaughan Williams symphony cycle, I accepted eagerly.

Thomson opens with a strong account of A Sea Symphony. Arguably, the opening pages are taken a bit too broadly though there’s no denying that the results are imposing. It’s immediately apparent that the performance has been recorded in big, full-bodied Chandos sound. The horns and percussion are particular beneficiaries. The London Symphony Chorus, which makes a fine showing throughout, is well balanced against the orchestra. Having begun broadly, Thomson picks up the pace nicely at ‘Today a rude, brief recitative’. Here, and throughout the symphony, Brian Rayner Cook sings firmly and with admirable clarity. Yvonne Kenny impresses too. Her first entry (’Flaunt out, O sea’) is suitably dramatic but just as pleasing is the rich legato line that she spins at ‘But do you reserve especially for yourself’. The movement’s last big climax (‘One flag above all the rest’) is truly fulfilling and the opulent Chandos sound makes the most of the moment.

Thomson achieves a good sense of nocturnal mystery in the second movement, which Rayner Cook sings well. The scherzo is as dashing and brilliant as it should be – the choir’s contribution is athletic, as it needs to be. The beginning of the finale, ‘The Explorers’ is taken very broadly indeed. Some may feel the pace is just too spacious but when I checked in my score, I was reminded that VW’s metronome marking is a very expansive crotchet = 44. By my rough calculation Thomson is pretty close to this. It does mean that when the voices stop at ‘Some hidden prophetic intention’, leaving the orchestra to carry on, the music is very broad indeed. And yet, the richness of the orchestral sound – and the recording – is highly persuasive. This very broad beginning means that the soloists’ admirable eagerness at ‘O, we can wait no longer’ is thrown into even sharper relief than usual. Both singers are excellent in the long passage that follows, conveying the rapture in the music – for example at ‘Bathe me, O God in thee’, which is expressively paced and sung. Thomson has the measure of the finale, though I wish he’d taken the closing pages (‘O my brave soul’) as expansively as he took the opening: the pace seems a bit swifter than the marked Molto adagio. Overall, though, there’s a great deal to admire in his performance of A Sea Symphony and I enjoyed it very much.

There’s a lot to like, too, about the ‘London’ Symphony. The opening makes a very good impression; a strong atmosphere is generated and the LSO’s quiet playing is excellent with abundant depth of tone in the strings’ pianissimos. The main Allegro risoluto bustles nicely and the vivid Chandos sound brings out all the colours in VW’s scoring. The lovely slow movement fares well; the performance is not short on poetry. The ‘lavender seller’ episode is very evocative and Thomson ensures that the big climax glows. I wasn’t quite so taken with the Scherzo, though; the tempo is just a fraction cautious and as a result the music is too deliberate for my taste when it ought to be light-footed. The finale starts in a big, passionate fashion and the weight of the performance is amplified by the super recording. In the stately slow march that follows we experience again Thomson’s occasional penchant for broad tempi, just as in the opening of the finale of A Sea Symphony. I think perhaps he’s just a touch too steady in this episode but it must be said that the results sound impressive and he builds up the intensity very well. The main Allegro has good energy, though I have heard other conductors take the section a bit quicker – to the music’s benefit. Nonetheless, I enjoyed Thomson’s performance and he brings the music to a massive, three-fold climax, which is opulently presented by the Chandos engineers. The hugely atmospheric Epilogue is well handled and well played: as at the beginning of the symphony, I admired the tonal weight on display in the very quiet passages.

I’m less sure about Thomson’s account of the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony. I actually think the Chandos recording, though excellent in many ways, may be something of a problem in that the music sounds a little too ‘present’ – even when I turned down the playback level a notch. In the first movement, the performance itself is also a bit ‘present’ This is a subjective reaction but I miss the atmosphere that conductors such as Boult, Previn or Elder have brought to this movement. Furthermore, I don’t really sense the subtle, darker undertones that surely lie beneath the surface. As I say, these are subjective reactions and other listeners may experience the performance very differently. I have fairly similar feelings about the second movement though these are somewhat assuaged by the nice distancing of the solo trumpet – the bugler practising alone in the countryside in wartime France and not getting his bugle call quite right. The third movement is the only loud movement in the work and Thomson’s bluff, forthright account of it is good. In the finale Yvonne Kelly, so effective under the very different requirements of A Sea Symphony, returns. In her opening cantilena she is ideally placed: the sound of her voice comes from afar yet is perfectly distinct. And how well she sings! The serene beauty of the passage that follows is well done by Thomson and the LSO. The more troubled, urgent music that lies at the movement’s heart is convincingly delivered and the climax, when it arrives, is noble. The symphony’s poignant end, graced by Miss Kenny’s wordless singing, comes off very well,

I think Thomson is much better suited to the Fourth Symphony and here, the dynamic, exciting Chandos sound is a real boon, especially in the finale. This volatile symphony is a big statement yet it’s also quite concise of utterance and Thomson does it well. The choleric first movement is strongly projected, not least by the potent LSO brass. The quiet closing pages are well brought off; there’s a proper sense that passion is spent. In the slow movement Thomson achieves excellent levels of quiet tension. The two climaxes are thrust home ardently; the second one is especially telling. There’s great energy and punch in the scherzo and I like the way the deliberately gawky music of the trio is delivered. The LSO manages a marvellously tense lead-up to the finale and that last movement itself erupts with fine force. In this movement the LSO’s timpanist is often a force to be reckoned with and his colleagues in the brass section have a field day, especially from 6:02 to the end. This is a splendid performance of the finale and, indeed, the whole symphony is persuasively done by Thomson.

After a serene start to the Fifth. Thomson’s performance of the first movement gradually grows in fervour. For all its beauty, the movement is not without its darker moments and Thomson brings out this aspect well. The climax is noble and strong. The Scherzo is delivered with great clarity and the Chandos engineers play their part here; the recording allows lots of small details in the scoring to register. However, the marking is Presto misterioso and I think its’s arguable that a bit too much sunlight is shone onto the music; it doesn’t sound as mysterious as I’ve experienced with some conductors – Previn in his RCA recording with the LSO is hard to beat in that respect. Thomson leads a fine account of the very beautiful Romanza but there’s more than surface beauty to his performance: the music has inner strength too. His reading of the finale is big-hearted and positive. You get the feeling that the music is as sturdy as an English oak and I like that. However, Thomson doesn’t pass by the poetry: the pacific conclusion to the work is very well brought off.

In the Sixth the opening pages are very strongly projected. When VW switches to compound time I’m less convinced by Thomson. It seems to me that he makes the music just a little too heavy; it needs more of a spring in its step than he allows. Overall, though, the movement is a success with plenty of punch and strength in the music making. For that both the musicians and the engineers can take credit. The famous ‘big tune’ at the end sounds glorious. Thomson invests the second movement with tension and power. The jazzy scherzo is incisively presented and once again the engineers deserve plaudits for the fact that so much of the teeming detail in the scoring comes through clearly. The strange, remote Epilogue is well done, though perhaps the last ounce of mystery is lacking. All in all, this is a pretty impressive traversal of the symphony.

I think that Sinfonia Antartica suits both Thomson and Chandos. The opening of the first movement is taken broadly and the results are imposing. In these opening paragraphs Thomson and the LSO powerfully suggest the vastness of the Polar landscape. A little later on, we hear the aural equivalent of icy glitter as the high percussion comes into play. I admire the way Thomson generates and sustains tension. The ghostly sound of the female voices sends a chill into the sound picture. The wide dynamic range of the recording produces very satisfactory results and that enhances the power of Thomson’s reading. In the Scherzo he brings out the ominous, dark side of much of the music. I must say, though, that I’ve heard more playful penguins in other performances. Landscape is bleak and forbidding. The opening of this movement is glacially chilling – the players’ control is superb. Every strand of VW’s highly evocative and original scoring register. At the great climax on the glacier (8:39) the organ, played by Roderick Elms, is powerful but the instrument’s sound is credibly integrated. In the recent Chandos remake with Sir Andrew Davis and the Bergen Philharmonic the organ made a cataclysmic contribution at this point. When I reviewed that disc I thought the sound of the organ was stunning. I still do but, on reflection, I now wonder if the effect wasn’t a bit overdone. This earlier Thomson version offers a more realistic concert-hall balance, I think, and his climax is awe-inspiring. Thomson’s account of this movement is gripping, intense and superbly controlled; for me, it’s a highlight of the whole set. After that, the Intermezzo offers a much-needed spell of somewhat calmer music. There’s strength and, indeed, an heroic stamp to the opening of the Epilogue: Thomson leads a resolute performance. Then, towards the end, VW takes us back to the dramatic power of the Antarctic. That is well conveyed in this performance, as is the remote chill of the very end. This account of Sinfonia Antartica is a conspicuous success and a peak in Thomson’s cycle.

He makes the first movement of the Eighth into a big movement. VW described this as ‘seven variations in search of a theme’ and I like the way Thomson differentiates each variation. The Scherzo alla marcia benefits hugely from the crisp, incisive playing offered by the LSO’s brass and woodwind. The strings come into their own in the Cavatina. This movement is very well done, the sound of the string choir is suitably rich. In the finale VW deployed, as he said, “all the 'phones and 'spiels” available. In my experience, percussion sections are never short-changed in Chandos recordings and the instruments make a telling contribution here. Mind you, the whole orchestra plays its full part in an ebullient performance.

The Ninth is something of a Cinderella among the VW symphonies; unfairly so, in my book, not least because even at this very late stage in his career VW was experimenting imaginatively with orchestration, employing a flugelhorn and a trio of saxophones. Thomson makes a fine case for the symphony. There’s music of mystery in the first movement and even more music of power. Thomson and his orchestra do both facets well. The music is confidently projected. Where required, the playing is robust in the Andante sostenuto second movement but much of the music is more romantic. It’s rather moving that in this movement VW uses a motif from his early tone poem The Solent (1903). It’s even more poignant that he should have used this motif in what turned out to be his last symphony when it had also played a part in his first such work, A Sea Symphony (‘And on its limitless heaving breast…’) Was this the closing of a circle? The Scherzo takes us back to the comparable movement in the Sixth symphony. The performance here is colourful and has a suitable degree of swagger. In his notes, Max Harrison says that much of the music in the last movement “is lit from within by a visionary, inward glow”, which is a good way of putting it. Thomson brings that aspect out very well. I’m not sure that VW regarded the Ninth as his symphonic last word – though by the time he wrote it he must have been increasingly conscious of his own mortality. However, the music with a “visionary, inward glow” does sound like a bit of a summing up, or perhaps I just got that feeling because I’d been doing concentrated listening to all the nine symphonies. Thomson does this movement well, not just the glowing passages but also the moments of craggy grandeur. And yet, even if this movement is something of a summing up, the very end of the symphony rather belies that: the washes of sound on saxophones and harp in between the last great chords hint at worlds yet to be explored by this remarkable composer. There’s much to admire in Thomson’s account of this symphony.

And, indeed, there’s much to admire in his cycle as a whole. True, there are some things I don’t feel he gets quite right – usually passages that are taken a bit too broadly – but these are relatively few and far between and overall this cycle is a fine achievement. Bryden Thomson clearly had an affinity with VW’s music and I found him a convincing guide to the symphonies. He gets a good, committed response from the LSO. I’ve already commented quite a few times on the Chandos engineering. In the first seven symphonies Ralph Couzens was the sound engineer and Richard Lee took over for the last two symphonies. The recordings are around 30 years old but I defy anyone hearing them “blind” to guess that. The sound is unfailingly vivid, rich and detailed and consistently presents the performances in an excellent light and with welcome presence and impact.

The booklet includes a useful essay on the symphonies by Max Harrison, which is also offered in French and German translations. The text of A Sea Symphony is provided, as are the superscriptions that preface each movement of Sinfonia Antartica. The booklet also includes a selection of interesting black-and-white photos of the composer.

When the symphonies appeared individually – and some are still available as single releases, I believe – most of them had couplings. Those ‘fillers’ aren’t included here in order to get the symphonies onto five discs. However,all the pieces concerned have been assembled onto a separate two-disc set (review).

Though there are many versions of the Vaughan Williams symphonies on the market this set is, as I said, a fine achievement. It should not be overlooked. I’m very glad that I’ve at last had the opportunity to hear it.

John Quinn

A Sea Symphony (No 1) [66:03]
A London Symphony (No 2) [47:38]
A Pastoral Symphony (No 3) [35:58]
Symphony No 4 in F minor [33:28]
Symphony No 5 in D major [38:50]
Symphony No 6 in E minor [34:06]
Sinfonia Antartica (Symphony No 7) [41:22]
Symphony No 8 in D minor [30:18]
Symphony No 9 in E minor [31:03]

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