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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Symphony No. 5 in D major [40:07]
Scenes adapted from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress [26:52]
Emily Portman (folk voice); Kitty Whately (mezzo-soprano); Marcus Farnsworth (baritone)
BBC Symphony Chorus; BBC Singers Quartet
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
rec. December 2018 (Pilgrim’s Progress), November 2019, Watford Colosseum, London
Texts included
HYPERION CDA68325 [66:59]

Vaughan Williams’s masterpiece is sometimes said to be his opera The Pilgrim’s Progress, which has some links to the 5th Symphony. But his journey to his 1951 “morality”, as he called his opera, was a very long one, and began in 1906 with incidental music for a dramatization of Bunyan’s book to be given at Reigate Priory. Hyperion has already given us recordings of the next two steps in RVW’s Bunyan Odyssey; the 1922 “pastoral episode” The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains (CDA66569, 1992) and an adaptation by Christopher Palmer of the music for a 1942 radio version put on disc as “The Pilgrim’s Progress – A Bunyan Sequence”(CDA 66511, 1991). But this collection of “Scenes adapted from Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress” is from that 1906 incidental music, and a first recording. It opens with the noble hymn tune from 1671 called “York” which also opens the opera, and contains the hymn tune “He who would valiant be” for the scene of the arming of Christian. But most of the music will be unfamiliar, even if you know the opera, as new music was written for much of the final text. It is nonetheless familiar in style, often being folk like. The enchanting “Angel’s song” is perhaps the plum, beautifully sung by Kitty Whateley. If it is not as interesting overall as those earlier Hyperion issues of RVW’s Bunyan music, it is still an enterprising filler, which is already a characteristic of this series.

The BBC Symphony and Brabbins have already given us the first four symphonies of Vaughan Williams and here reach his wartime 5th Symphony (1943). It is a very good performance worthy of its place in a cycle, without disturbing the leading recommendations from the last sixty years and more. The orchestra play well throughout – there are some fine woodwind contributions, so critical in this work, and not just the cor anglais in the Romanza. The first movement is the best achieved here, with good judgement of the ritenuto coming up to fig.5 and the accelerando ahead of fig.7, important in that sense of ebb and flow within a main tempo which can be tricky in this work. The second movement fares rather less well, for no other reason than that the speed does not feel like a Presto, so that although the cross-rhythms are all in place, as are the very neat exchanges between winds and strings, the character of the piece remains elusive – though it often does. (How about a sort of galumphing English L’apprenti sorcier one day?)

The great Romanza is pretty slow, as in so many of the most admired versions (see below), and this is not helped by the Animato section lacking animation. The climax is nailed ok, the solo violin is eloquent enough, but then the coda feels like a crawl to the double bar line. The Passacaglia suffers something of the same problem, as if there is not enough at stake in what has been called by one musicologist “the most bleak and disturbing music the composer ever wrote”. You don’t have to endorse that to feel that the approach up to the “Tempo del Preludio” moment – the ff return of the opening theme of the work - needs to deliver a sense of a crisis faced and then passed. Without that the long epilogue to the work seems a rather protracted recessional.

Brabbins clearly has great affection for the score, giving a dedicated account, more devotional than dramatic. It also aligns itself with those from conductors who feel that the meaning is best extracted from this score by taking your time over it. The score suggest a timing of “c. 35 minutes” and the very first recording, by Barbirolli in 1944, takes 36:21, the briefest I know of – even the composer in a 1952 Prom took 37:52, and Boult 37:09 in 1953 and 36:54 in 1968. But soon benchmark recommendations left these timings behind: from Barbirolli (1965) who stretched to 38:28, Handley (1985) to 39:16, Previn (1971) to 41:53, and Haitink (1994) to 43:06. Now Brabbins has joined the 40-minute plus contingent (although by 7 seconds only). Often it is the Romanza that explains the difference, though not always. Handley is a reasonably flowing 11:33, Barbirolli (1965) 12:10, Previn 12:57, and Haitink a Brucknerian 13:29. (Brabbins takes a tolerable 12:16). Yet Boult takes just 10:50 in both his recordings. And the composer? A mere 10.15, and it sounds totally convincing, a truly passionate pilgrimage “from this world to that which is to come” as Bunyan put it.

A pity that this private taping (first issued on Somm only in 2008) was not available to any of the conductors above until long after they had made their own version or versions. All future conductors preparing the piece should arrange a retreat to a monastery or convent with a copy of Bunyan, some good headphones, the score and RVW’s own recording, along with Boult’s 1953 one. They should avoid all contact with any stereo recording. If on emerging they wonder what happened with subsequent recordings they should look at William Hedley’s MWI survey of all the 20th century versions. He did not have the composer’s recording however.

But the fact is that all the above were and remain recommendable accounts, and Brabbins has won high praise for his disc from some respected voices, including on this site. I do feel a sub 38 minute time is a good indicator of the sort of interpretation you might find. To the illustrious list above I would add Andrew Manze’s in 2018, as his Liverpool account (Romanza 11:58, overall 37:32) does much more within his broad(ish) tempi than some, and his second movement especially sparkles as he takes the Presto marking seriously (4:53 against the composer’s own 5:04). The other name I would want to add is the rather overlooked one of Sir Roger Norrington with the LPO on Decca (1998). His 37:55 timing just squeezes in to my slightly artificial cut-off because its Romanza of 11:07 comes closer to the spirit of RVW than anyone since Boult. What a pity his cycle was left unfinished after he had recorded symphonies 2-6, very well indeed. As a man who had both sung and played under the ageing composer, he was born for A Sea Symphony!

The Hyperion sound is very good, if not quite out of their top drawer. It might well be the recording venue, but often where the score’s page was busy from top to bottom, the wind and brass detail was a bit dominated by the strings whenever the latter provide the leading voice (which is fairly often with this composer). Manze’s 2018 Onyx account was better in this respect but that was recorded in Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. There is a brief but good booklet note by Robert Matthew-Walker, who corrects the date of the 1906 Bunyan piece. (Christopher Palmer’s notes for those other Hyperion discs repeated the incorrect 1909 date found in Ursula Vaughan Williams’s biography).

Roy Westbrook

Previous reviews: John Quinn ~ Michael Wilkinson

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