Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Symphony No. 2 A London Symphony
Symphony No. 3 Pastoral Symphony
Margaret Ritchie (soprano), London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
rec. 1952, Kingsway Hall, London, UK
Boult conducts Vaughan Williams Volume 2
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC662 
This is the second instalment in Pristine’s ongoing series “Boult conducts Vaughan Williams” in which Andrew Rose is revitalising these early 1950s mono recordings through XR Remastering. Both Paul Corfield Godfrey and I very favourably reviewed their first issue of the Sea Symphony (review; review); indeed I nominated it as “Recommended”, so good was Pristine’s transfer and remastering. Boult recorded all nine symphonies in that decade, but only the Eighth and Ninth were in stereo and the Ninth was released not by Decca but on the Everest label. I again reviewed that very favourably in 2014; I hope that perhaps Pristine will licence and remaster it to complete the first Boult series – the later cycle having been made for EMI.
Given that the response to 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth has been rather muted and this is the centenary of the premiere of the Pastoral, this project is especially to be welcomed. The London Symphony was Vaughan Williams’ favourite; it receives a committed, even rumbustious recording here from Boult and once again comes up splendidly in Pristine’s remastering, with minimal hiss and considerable depth and breadth of sound. Boult delivers a truly energised account of the first movement even if the timpani are rather distant – presumably a function of the recording – and the conclusion is rousing, contrasting tellingly with the melancholy beauty of the opening of the Lento second movement, which is sensitively and movingly played. The Scherzo is fleet and compelling – again, perfectly delivered. The finale is especially grand and authoritative, moving through its disparate phases to its serene close.
I guess I am more of a devotee of the “’Ave a banana” school of RVW devotees as opposed to those who appreciate the “cow looking over a gate” or “Cow-pat school” of British composers, as I have always struggled to enjoy the Pastoral symphony but Boult’s way with its somewhat diffuse yet ear-tickling sonorities convince me of its melodic and harmonic kinship with Vaughan Williams’ more popular works such a A Lark Ascending, Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis and Dives and Lazarus. It is shot through with a searing, post Great War melancholy for things, people and places lost. The playing of the cor anglais is especially poignant. Despite the prevailingly reflective mood, the fast section in the Moderato pesante third movement is strikingly propulsive. Soloist Margaret Ritchie sounds remote in the sound picture but that is not inappropriate and the sweep of the final three minutes is mightily impressive, standing in contrast to the restraint of the preceding music.
Of course there are more modern recordings of these two symphonies in superior, digital sound, but there is something very seductive about hearing these works being given such dedicated performances by a conductor who steadfastly championed this British composer and is here given the best possible sound.