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Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Vaughan Williams Live - Volume 1
The Wasps Overture (1909)
Symphony No. 6 in E minor (1944)
Symphony No. 9 in E minor (1958)
BBC Symphony Orchestra (6); Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (9)/Sir Malcolm Sargent
rec. 1957-64, London
SOMM ARIADNE 5016 [73]

The Wasps overture simply flies past at iconic Sargent speed. Time after time, long-spun melodies come up with a saturated warm aural lustre. The general effect is one of a mélange of voluptuousness and velocity. This is typical of Sargent who takes his Vaughan Williams at a pace that does not dawdle in meditation. It’s a game and lickety-split affair with a volatile blend of Rimsky and English folksong. The full orchestral tone - fit to burst into flower at 3:24. As a work ,The Wasps music is well worth hearing in its entirety and I recommend the only version (Halle label). At times Sargent may have had in mind his own brilliantissimo overture An Impression on a Windy Day (1927) recorded on ASV. That almost-forgotten overture must not be overlooked.

The Sixth Symphony has been done more grimly (Stokowski, Mitropoulos, Abravanel) but not with such sheer speed of spirit and joyance in orchestral detail (I: 2:10). The saxophone comes over rather well, especially in the I and III. Once more, the plenitude of string tone sustains and blesses the heart. True, the first movement’s core harp episode is somewhat scouted over (5:13) but a bigness of soul is at work here and a vituperative impatience generally in keeping with the work’s existential essence. The four movements are over in 33 minutes as against the classic first version by Boult (Decca: c.38). There is a ‘price’ to be paid and it is in the desolation of the niente desolation of the finale which threatens to elude Sargent - although he comes very much closer in the Moderato (II).

The Ninth and last symphony is, like the Sixth, in four movements across a half hour, more or less. Each is in E minor. While the Ninth might well be steeped in Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (RVW had then recently written music for the BBC’s radio adaptation of the novel) the third movement looks back to the earthy fairground music of Vanity Fair in Pilgrim’s Progress. The score positively writhes in detail. Not least effective are the string (usually violins) melodies throughout and the triple saxophones. They are a risky feature, as also is the flugelhorn, but for this listener they generously pay off. In the finale, the composer harks back, in the most eloquent fashion, to the lapidary witchwood world of An Oxford Elegy and the Norfolk Rhapsodies. The symphony ends in a sequence of waves of sound.

The booklet notes for this mono disc are by Simon Heffer who can be relied on to carry a brightness-bestowing torch for British music. His Vaughan Williams book is a short but athletically engaging read, very much on the scale of the Phaidon Press composer series. He takes time in the Somm notes to plumb a telling profundity of detail about all three works.

This CD is part of the celebrations for 150th anniversary of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ birth. Somm assures that these are “definitive, newly re-mastered performances” by the technically and artistically gifted Lani Spahr (who won his spurs in the “Locked in the Vault” series) working with off-radio tapes. The tapes are from BBC relays of historical performances from 1957, 1958 and 1964 and there’s applause after each work.

What we hear from Somm can be set beside the abundant slice of “studio” RVW on CD 11 in Warner’s Icon boxed set: The Wasps: Overture; Greensleeves Fantasia, Tallis Fantasia, Serenade to Music, Toward the Unknown Region and the Harmonica Romance. The pioneering 1920s extracts from Hugh the Drover (once issued on a Pearl LP) are side-stepped.

The Somm disc is dubbed “VW Live vol. 1”. More radio RVW from Sargent or from others? Cause for celebration … one would expect? Somm have a track record for this sort of thing including numerous Beechams and one glorious Rubbra disc. Sargent was a hero to his public and a grim tyrant to ‘his’ orchestras - nothing new about that - but he drew from his players often breathtakingly lovely results.

Rob Barnett

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