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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Symphony No. 3 ‘Pastoral’ (1921) [37:32]
Symphony No. 4 in F minor (1931-34) [34:16]
Saraband ‘Helen’ (1913-1914, unpublished, realised by Martyn Brabbins) [9:06]
Elizabeth Watts (soprano), David Butt Philip (tenor)
BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Martyn Brabbins
rec. 2018, Watford Colosseum, Watford, UK
HYPERION CDA68280 [80:57]

A measure of Vaughan Williams’s enduring communicative power is how over the decades since his death conductors, orchestras and audiences have kept returning to his music and especially his symphonies to produce cycles of real substance and quality. His symphonies sit alongside the towering achievements of Shostakovich, Sibelius, Nielsen and Prokofiev as the most recorded cycles of the 20th century. Ever since Boult recorded his mono cycle with the LPO and the composer in attendance for Decca, every decade has seen the catalogue swell with new interpretations of real stature. Indeed I cannot think of one cycle which does not feature at least one stand-out performance, and none that are by any means poor.

There are three new cycles in various stages of completion. Just finished is Andrew Manze’s in Liverpool, Elder in Manchester still has 7 and 9 to release, while Martyn Brabbins is just three discs and four symphonies into his survey. It would appear that Brabbins intends to release these symphonies in numerical order, so with this third release we have the compelling coupling of the 3rd and 4th Symphonies. Even with a catalogue bulging with individual works of power and beauty, these two symphonies represent high peaks in Vaughan Williams’s output. They are starkly contrasted in terms of actual sound and emotional landscape but they are profoundly moving works of genius in the sense of displaying a unique personality or disposition. Whether or not they are ‘modern’ or ‘original’ seems less and less important as the years pass and what is left are musical visions caught by a truly visionary composer at the height of his powers.

We are many years past the derogatory comments of the critics who could not see (or hear) beyond the nominal pastoralisms of the 3rd symphony. This is the composer’s instrumental war requiem in all but name. Brabbins produces a beautifully measured and contemplative reading at its best in the moments of held rapture and quiet meditation. In this he is helped by the typically fine Hyperion engineering, the work of the hugely experienced Andrew Keener producing and Simon Eadon engineering. They opt for a warm but neutral sound stage with some discreet highlighting of woodwind soloists and the harp. The latter in particular registers in a way that I have rarely heard before. The two biggest sound-stage choices work extremely well. The E flat natural trumpet solo in the 2nd movement, and the solo voice – here a soprano – in the finale are both placed in the distance. In the score, Vaughan Williams marked the vocal part “distant” but the trumpet simply pp. This new recording chooses to also place the trumpeter away from the main orchestral group. This is very effective indeed, helped in no small degree by the superlative playing of Alan Thomas (the notes include an orchestral list where he is down as first trumpet, so I assume it was he). Apart from the sheer passing beauty of this passage and its performance here, this effect creates an emotional link with the finale, almost as if the last-post of the trumpet then takes human form in the finale. That to me has always had the quality of redemption, if not peace then at least acceptance. The soprano here is Elizabeth Watts. It strikes me that apart from the sheer technical beauty of the sound she makes, she finds an ideal balance between an other-worldly rapture and a more humane warmth.

This is without doubt a very impressive and deeply felt performance but, as mentioned before, there have been many other interpretations of similar stature. Of the many I chose two to make direct comparisons: Previn and the LSO on RCA because the coupling of the symphonies is the same, and Andrew Davis on Teldec because he also conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Davis chooses more flowing tempi for each movement, which produces a slightly detached, almost cool effect. But I have to say I rather like the cumulative impact: the emotion is there but not embraced. The Teldec engineering still sounds remarkably well given that it will soon be a quarter of a century old. That said, Brabbins does dig deeper into the rich seams of expression this work contains, the slower tempi allowing him to take more time to ‘stand and stare’. Previn is even broader in tempi in every movement except the finale. His late 1960s / early 1970s cycle remains one of the jewels of his large discography. The sound in its latest Sony 24-bit remastering is remarkable for recordings over half a century old. The Kingsway Hall and the Decca engineers (Kenneth Wilkinson, I assume) produce a more blended, overtly weightier sound for Previn than Brabbins achieves. Previn’s soprano, Heather Harper, is less distanced than Watts and sings with a more consciously detached style. It is also very beautiful but Watts for Brabbins takes the palm. On the other hand, I find John Georgiadis’s violin solos more fluent and rapturous than Stephen Bryant’s for Brabbins. So as with any fine performance, it is a case of nip and tuck. Brabbins’s pacing across the whole work is very impressive with the finale becoming, as mentioned, a powerfully moving conclusion. However, Previn’s ecstatic visionary climaxes are overwhelming.

When it was first released, the critical reception of Previn’s No. 4 was somewhat dismissive. I must admit to having loved that recording ever since I first heard it. However, I was also expecting great things from Martyn Brabbins. He is such a skilled conductor of contemporary and challenging music that I expected this to be a searingly powerful performance. By that measure I have to admit to being slightly disappointed. Of course the playing of the current BBC SO is every bit as skilled, nimble and accurate as has become their norm. But somehow this is a work that needs to sound hard-won, even harsh. Again, the presentiments of war that some hear in this work are well-known and often repeated. Suffice to say, it is the work with the highest level of sustained dissonance in Vaughan Williams’s entire oeuvre. Of course the BBC SO were the orchestra quite literally in the firing line when the composer conducted the searing first recording of the work in 1937. This remains one of the piece’s most compelling recordings, and a version that all admirers of this composer should hear. Vaughan Williams as conductor drives the work with an intensity and ferocity that no-one has matched since. There are other legitimate interpretations of the work but I do find that Brabbins’s control (which worked to such good effect in the long thoughtful lines of the Pastoral symphony) somehow diffuse and dissipate the cumulative fury of No. 4. There is power and passion in this performance but on a less elemental level than other performances I have heard. The much older Previn recording allows the brass writing to dominate excitingly in a way that the objective Hyperion production does not. By stopwatch alone, Previn and Brabbins are quite closely matched but both are left far behind the onslaught of the composer’s own version. To those who prefer a more mercurial approach lacing their malevolence, this Brabbins version might well appeal; it is certainly very well played and engineered. Brabbins is very good at navigating some of the tricky transitions that in other performances can come across as slightly clumsy. But this does come at the price of the underlying brutality that shocked audiences at early performances, and can still do so to this day. For this work I do unreservedly prefer Previn’s approach for all the high-performance values which this new disc displays. Andrew Davis’s BBC SO performance is again well recorded and played but for some reason rarely catches fire, especially after a rather laboured and under-powered opening movement.

One feature to date of the present series has been the addition of rare and generous fillers. The inclusion of the unpublished Saraband ‘Helen’ from 1913-1914 takes an already well-filled disc above the 80 minute mark. The Helen in question is Christopher Marlowe’s Helen of Troy. The set text opens with the famous line: “was this the face that launched a thousand ships, and burnt the topless towers of Ilium”. Robert Matthew-Walker’s notes describe the work as an uncompleted, unorchestrated draft vocal score. Martyn Brabbins has completed it, and orchestrated the score. Curiously for an English company, Hyperion write “realization”. Slightly frustratingly, it is not made clear how much intervention in terms of bars or instrumentation was by Brabbins. Certainly it sounds very much like authentic mature Vaughan Williams. Perhaps the greatest surprise is how in 1913 the composer was writing music very similar indeed to the emotional/musical landscape he created in the Serenade to Music some 25 years later. Matthew-Walker argues that the composer’s energies were focussed on the upcoming premiere of the London Symphony which in turn was overtaken by the outbreak of war, leaving this music shelved. But Matthew-Walker rightly points out that other works including The Lark Ascending were similarly put aside so the Sarabande’s neglect is not completely explained.

Admirers of the composer will want to hear this work. Brabbins as both resurrectionist and conductor certainly does a fine job. I use the term resurrectionist as I happened across the phrase in Hubert Foss’s Ralph Vaughan Williams - A Study published in 1950. Foss writes: “those [earlier works] that are withdrawn are not discussed here; to drag up skeletons of the past would be at best a task for a prying biographer, at worst a task for a musical resurrection-man.” This from an author whose study was done with the collaboration and input of the composer. How times change. Of all composer estates, Vaughan Williams’s seems the most open to promotion and completion of early or fragmented works. I must admit I am not always convinced by the value of these “discoveries”. This Saraband has many attractive Vaughan Williams fingerprints but it is quite literally not the finished article; in a nine minute choral work the chorus does not enter for nearly three and the soloist another half minute later. Tenor David Butt Philip has an ardent lyricism that is very well suited to the music. Likewise the BBC Symphony Chorus sing very well. So on balance I do feel this is a enjoyable and valuable addition to the composer’s catalogue, with the standard caveat that it is a realisation and by no means the final version. My one other thought would have been to place this work first on the disc. Not only would this have given the works a chronological sequence but somehow the transition from pre-war untroubled lyricism to the shell-shocked Pastoral and then onto the unforgiving 4th would flow better. Although Hyperion leave a decent break between Symphony 4 and Helen the music itself jars slightly. To my ear, the end of the symphony brooks no further discussion. Admirers of this composer will wish to seek this work out, and I am sure will greatly enjoy what they hear.

This is a fine disc, and one that builds upon the qualities present in the first two volumes. A British newspaper recently crowned Andrew Manze as the greatest living interpreter of Vaughan Williams. This comment is faintly embarrassing to all involved, and promptly contested by this new disc (let alone Elder’s cycle). For all its qualities and a particularly impressive Pastoral Symphony I would still turn to other versions for even richer musical rewards.

Nick Barnard

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