Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Symphony No. 4
Symphony No. 5
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
rec. 1953, Kingsway Hall, London. Ambient Stereo
Reviewed in 24-bit FLAC download
Boult conducts Vaughan Williams Vol. 3
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC665 
For many listeners, the short, sharp Fourth is probably the hardest of Vaughan Williams’ symphonies to appreciate; the jagged violence of its opening is still somewhat shocking today and sometimes reminiscent of a modernist idiom typified by such as Bartók, far removed from the preponderantly dreamy, reflective mood of his oeuvre – an atmosphere recaptured only at the close of the first movement. A stern, frequently dissonant and disconcerting tone pervades the remainder of the symphony and there is little in the way of repose or consolation; in that regard, it is perhaps a forerunner of the Ninth Symphony.
This is the third in Pristine’s series of Sir Adrian Boult’s 1950’s symphonic cycle and once again Adrian Rose’s remastering of the sound into XR Ambient Stereo is transformative, rendering all previous issues redundant. My own preference to-date has been Bernstein’s 1965 recording paired with a starrily-cast Serenade to Music; the music suited Lenny’s tempestuous temperament but nor does this version by Boult display any lack of fire. The coruscating drama of the finale is surely akin to Shostakovich at his most desperately mordant and Boult really delivers.
The contrast with the profoundly “spiritual” Fifth could hardly be greater. At its heart lies the famous Romanza, the most transcendental music RVW ever wrote, but the broad, lilting melody on the cor anglais which opens the symphony has already set an ethereal tone of pastoral and domestic calm very reminiscent of the start of Job, a work written a decade earlier - and also, of course, the work employs themes lifted from his ongoing opera, The Pilgrim’s Progress. Surely detectible in the Scherzo, too, are rhythmical and melodic motifs evincing the influence of Vaughan Williams’ lifelong friend Gustav Holst.
Boult certainly captures both the stately grandeur and tender poignancy of this wonderful music; the LPO brass in particular is especially luminous and Pristine’s remastering brings out afresh the warmth of their sound. It is true that no amount of remastering can impart to the Romanza the kind of immediacy we hear in a modern digital recording such as that by Kees Bakels on Naxos, a recording I have long prized, but the sincerity and soul of the LPO’s playing under Boult go a long way towards compensating for some opacity of sound, especially now that this recording has been given new life. Bakel’s reading is in fact very similar to Boult’s, although Boult takes a more elevated approach to the Passacaglia whereas Bakels emphasises its folksier elements; both are interpretatively superlative and equally valid. However many recordings they already have, RVW aficionados will surely want to hear Pristine’s splendid revitalisation of these classic accounts of two major English symphonies.