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Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Symphony No 5 (1943)
Symphony No 6 (1947)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
rec. 16 August 1972 (6) and 4 August 1975 (5), Royal Albert Hall, London, UK

Here, marking the 150th anniversary of the birth of Vaughan Williams, is treasure indeed from ICA Classics, in the form of performances of two symphonies given at the Proms in the 1970s by Sir Adrian Boult. We’re not exactly short of Boult recordings of the VW symphonies so it might reasonably be asked: do we need two more? Well, having listened to this CD, I think the unequivocal answer is that we do.

As we learn from Martin Cotton’s interesting notes, these performances were significant ones in Boult’s career. The performance of the Fifth was the last occasion on which he conducted it for a Proms audience, thirty-one years after his first Proms account of the work. Boult was equally strongly connected to the Sixth and the performance preserved here was given to mark the composer’s centenary; strangely, that was the first time Sir Adrian had been invited to present it at the Proms.

Shortly before I received my copy of this disc, I read the review by my colleague Jonathan Woolf. He noted that Boult had reconsidered his approach to the score as compared to his commercial recordings. I was intrigued by his suggestion that Boult might have been stimulated by the recording conducted by André Previn: “I can only think that this is Boult’s riposte to that 1972 LP recording; that Previn, whom Boult is known to have admired, offered him - almost in default - an opportunity to ratchet the music’s intensity, volatility, and insistent stoicism to a degree wholly unmatched in the conductor’s discography.” It’s a fascinating idea. Previn and Boult had collaborated on an EMI recording of Mozart piano concertos in the early 1970s and it’s clear from Michael Kennedy’s definitive biography of Sir Adrian that, having been brought together by EMI producer, Christopher Bishop, the two musicians got on very well indeed. Perhaps supportive of Jonathan’s idea is a comment made by Kennedy in that biography: “In these last years of his life Boult became deeply concerned over his tempi in certain works and re-examined his approach as it compared with recordings by the composers and other conductors”. Martin Cotton quotes from a review of the concert by Anthony Payne but I think it’s worth reproducing the slightly more extensive quotation from Payne’s review that Michael Kennedy provides: “if anyone was expecting our senior conductor to deliver a slow-moving, serene reading Sir Adrian tersely dismissed such cliché-ridden ideas about the wisdom of old age and shaped one of the most taut and concentrated interpretations I have heard of the work. This is not to say that there was not an impressive serenity at the heart of the performance, but it was a hard-won serenity”.

Boult made his second commercial recording of the Fifth for EMI (with the LPO) in April 1969 (review). The total playing time of that EMI version is 37:19, whereas the present Proms performance, some six years later, played for 34:46. In 1975 we find Boult imparting a very natural, easeful flow to the opening pages of the first movement; there’s fluid momentum. In the central section of the movement (from 4:29) the pace is, of course, faster and Boult generates no little excitement. I liked this reading of the movement very much. The shadowy Scherzo is the one movement in which we find no appreciable difference in Boult’s timings in 1969 and 1975. The BBC Symphony gives a nimble rendition of the music. In 1969 Boult took 10:50 over the Romanza but this later performance plays for just 9:00. I don’t believe Boult is unduly hasty in the later performance – though I must confess a preference for a slightly more expansive approach. This is a clear-eyed, direct reading of the movement. I hear patrician dignity in Boult’s performance, which is refreshing. His account of the concluding Passacaglia is purposeful; he and the orchestra invest the music with welcome vigour. The serene coda (from 7:18) is beautifully judged; there’s a quiet glow to the music but the approach, while in no way devoid of feeling, is again clear-eyed. Unfortunately, as so often happens with Prom performances, the audience – or at least some of them – can scarcely wait for the music to end before showing their appreciation. (Fortunately, after the performance of A Sea Symphony at the 2022 Proms (review), the audience was much more respectful of the work’s subdued ending.)

This is a significant account of the Fifth which nicely complements both of Boult’s studio recordings of the work. I enjoyed it very much.

The recorded sound in which we hear the Fifth is really very good, especially when one considers that the BBC recording was made 47 years ago. The sound for the Sixth, though perfectly acceptable given its fifty-year vintage, is not quite so good. It seems to me that the sound is constrained by comparison with the quality that the BBC engineers achieved only three years later. In 1972 the dynamics are rather compressed; the orchestra sounds somewhat confined and the side drum is a little too prominent at times. That said, the listener will get a very good idea of Boult’s reading.

Once again, it’s interesting to consider Boult’s EMI recording, made with the New Philharmonia in early 1967 – I think it was the first instalment in the EMI cycle (review). That performance plays for a total of 36:08, whereas the 1972 Prom reading occupied 34:12. As was the case with the Fifth, the timings for the Scherzo were almost identical in the two performances while the other three movements played for a little longer in EMI’s studio.

At the Proms, Boult drives the first movement along strongly. In the extensive episode in compound time the rhythms are well-sprung. The famous Big Tune (from 6:07) is taken at quite a flowing speed; there’s no rhetorical broadening here but, rather, the melody is delivered ‘straight’ and this approach underlines the fact that the melody is a natural development of material that has been previously heard. Boult exercises a firm grip on the Moderato movement. This music has an abundance of tension in it - sometimes overtly powerful, more often suppressed – and Sir Adrian brings out all that tension without ramming home the point unnecessarily.

I was surprised by the very opening of the Scherzo. This should burst in, rudely interrupting the troubled quiet in which the second movement has ended. On this occasion, though, the opening seems a bit muted and the music takes a few moments to get into its stride. Was there some momentary uncertainty between rostrum and orchestra, perhaps? To be honest, I found the performance of this movement a bit on the tame side, though that might be partially explained by the somewhat dull recorded sound. The performance of VW’s extraordinary, suppressed finale is well done. Boult exercises firm control and ensures that the music unfolds seamlessly and atmospherically. Mercifully, the 1972 audience was a little slower off the mark in expressing their appreciation than was the case in 1975.

This disc offers us a good live account of the Sixth but the real prize here is the Fifth. I understand from my colleague, Nick Barnard, that the recording of the Sixth has been available on CD before, both on the old BBC Classics label and also as a covermount CD with Vol 21 No 7 of the BBC Music Magazine. However, I think I’m right in saying that the Fifth is new to CD. The performance of that masterpiece is a significant addition to the discography of both the work and of Sir Adrian Boult.

John Quinn

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

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