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Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Sinfonia antartica (1949-52)
Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 in E minor (1906)
Symphony No. 9 in E minor (1956-58)
The Lark Ascending (1914, rev. 1920)
Lyn Fletcher (violin)
Sophie Bevan (soprano)
Sopranos and altos of the Hallé Choir
Hallé/Sir Mark Elder
rec. live and studio, 2005-2021, Manchester
HALLÉ CDHLD7558 [2 CDs: 107]

This double issue completes Mark Elder’s cycle of the Vaughan Williams symphonies. I have not heard the earlier issues myself, but they all have been reviewed on MWI (see end of review). The symphonies alone, without the extra items, have also now been issued in a box set (review).

The seventh symphony, Sinfonia Antartica, had its origin in a commission to the composer for incidental music for the film Scott of the Antarctic. Captain Robert Falcon Scott had led an expedition there in 1911-12 in the hope of being the first to reach the South Pole. In this he was unsuccessful, being beaten to the race by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen and his team. Moreover, on the way back Scott and the whole of his party died, victims of the Antarctic’s brutal conditions. Since then argument has raged as whether he and his team were simply unfortunate or whether Scott was reckless, foolhardy and a poor planner. Vaughan Williams was aware of this debate, but for the film saw the story as one of heroism against an implacable adversary. He was enthusiastic about the commission and wrote a great deal of music for it, not all of which was actually used in the film, which premiered in 1948. (There is a complete recording of what he wrote by Martin Yates on Dutton.) Even at the time he was thinking of reusing some of the material for a concert work, and this eventually emerged as the Sinfonia Antartica, first performed in 1953 by John Barbirolli and the Hallé Orchestra, which therefore has a particular association with the work.

The premiere was well received, but there was some controversy as to whether the work’s programmatic nature prevented it from being a proper symphony. Vaughan Williams’ choice of an Italian title was perhaps an acknowledgement that it was not like his other symphonies. This dispute seems rather stale now, especially since Maxwell Davies wrote his own Antarctic Symphony, premiered in 2001 and acknowledging a debt to Vaughan Williams, and I should simply say that I have loved the work ever since I have known it. To a normal sized orchestra Vaughan Williams adds a good deal of extra percussion, both tuned and untuned, the latter including a wind machine. He also requires celesta, harp, piano and organ, the latter having a very important entry in the third movement, Landscape. The tuned percussion, celesta, harp and piano are used together to evoke the icy wastes of the Antarctic. Wilfrid Mellers, in his book on the composer, calls them magic instruments and points out that their self-revolving patterns contrast with the rising scale motif of the symphony’s opening which represents human aspiration. There is also a solo soprano, as in Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony, and a small choir of women’s voices, as in Neptune from Holst’s Planets. Both that and Holst’s Saturn are obvious influences, as is also the epilogue from the sixth symphony. The composer also prefixed each of the five movements with an epigraph. These are occasionally spoken in performances and recordings, but it seems that the composer did not intend this, and they are omitted here, though included in the booklet.

The opening Prelude sets out the theme of human aspiration. It is not the kind of theme which lends itself to symphonic development, but it is in a constant state of flux. Elder makes this sombre and brooding. After a pause the magic instruments appear, evoking the non-human Antarctic wastes. The solo soprano and the female chorus enter and, strangely, they sound more akin to the non-human magic instruments than to the human aspiration. This opposition continues for the rest of the movement.

The Scherzo which follows is based on music which in the film is associated with sea-beasts and seabirds and is playful, though always aware of the threatening background. Even the magic instruments join in the play and there is a particularly striking passage which evokes penguins. A plunging bass figure oddly suggests Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie of a few years earlier, though it is doubtful whether Vaughan Williams would have heard it, or liked it if he had.

Landscape is the central movement and is a straight evocation of the Antarctic without human involvement. Here Vaughan Williams has borrowed some ideas from Holst’s Saturn, notably a slow procession of chords. At the climax the orchestra is opposed by the full organ, which moves in massive unrelated chords. Vaughan Williams might have got this idea from Berlioz’ Te Deum: anyway it is both impressive and alarming. I did wonder whether Handley’s performance, which is slightly slower and with perhaps an even more impressive organ entry, might be preferable here.

The Intermezzo which follows, evokes the families back home of the explorers with an attractive tune on the oboe. A solo violin even suggests a lark. However, a slow march takes over and the music gradually freezes.

The final Epilogue begins with brass fanfares which turn into a march. The music of the opening Prelude returns, but getting weaker and weaker and then after a final climax the solo soprano takes over, along with the chorus and the wind machine to end the work in utter bleakness.

I found Elder’s performance grandly impressive and sustained. Although deriving from a live performance and a rehearsal there is no applause or sound from the audience, so I dare say any intrusive noises were patched.

The Sinfonia Antartica is a straightforward work; the ninth symphony is very different. It is a strange and enigmatic work, which has taken a long time to make its way in the world. It waqs the composer’s last major composition and he was eightyfive when he wrote it. Peter J. Pirie, writing in the 1970s, while the work was still in the doldrums, called it ‘a final masterpiece’ and said ‘its strange and twisted atmosphere, with terror always just around the corner, its troubled and haunted mood, like that of a troubled dream, suggests what it might be like to be very old’ (The English Musical Renaissance). He is certainly right about the atmosphere of the work, which is sombre and thick. Its inspiration comes from the city of Salisbury, Stonehenge, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Ubervilles and a folk tale of a drum-playing ghost. At one point it had a programme but this was abandoned. It is scored for a normal orchestra, with some extra percussion, to which are added some rare visitors: saxophones – Vaughan Williams had used one each in Job and the sixth symphony, but here we have three – and a flugelhorn, a brass instrument similar to a trumpet but with a much mellower and darker tone. These are magic instruments for this work, as the tuned percussion and keyboards were in Sinfonia Antartica.

There are four movements. The first begins grandly, in a manner reminiscent of the Sinfonia Antartica, but the saxophones start wailing; they seem evil here, as did the solo saxophone in Job. Later we have a lyrical theme on clarinets with harp. There is constant turbulence but towards the end there is a magical entry on the flugelhorn. The slow movement has two main ideas: another flugelhorn melody and a strange march, associated with the drummer of Salisbury Plain. The Scherzo is dominated by the saxophones, which are alternately jaunty and sinister, with interjections from a side drum and xylophone. The finale is really two movements played continuously. First comes a fugal Andante, followed by a rocking chord sequence and a melody on the low strings. A viola theme take us into the second part of the movement, which develops the rocking chordal passage into a final climax. The last word is left to the saxophones.

Elder gives a good account of this, as one would expect, but there is something a bit awkward about it. I note that it is a studio recording, and I wonder whether the work was unfamiliar to the orchestra and they had not had much time to learn it. The recordings by Handley and Haitink, though also studio made, seem on surer ground. The difference is most marked in the Scherzo, where Elder is cautious and Handley and Haitink neat, but none of these has the rollicking swagger of Stokowski in his 1958 live performance.

The fillers are both reissues from a mixed programme dating back to 2006 (review review). The Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 is nicely done but nothing special. (The reason we normally only ever hear No. 1 is because the composer withdrew Nos. 2 and 3 and destroyed the score of No. 3. You can hear all three, No. 2 in a completion and No 3 in a reconstruction, on another disc by Martin Yates on Dutton.) In The Lark Ascending the solo violin is Lyn Fletcher, the Hallé’s leader, who is delicate and ethereal rather than impassioned.

The recordings, despite being from different dates and venues, are well matched, and the booklet good. With an excellent Sinfonia Antartica and an adequate ninth symphony, those collecting Elder’s Vaughan Williams symphony cycle can add this with confidence. Others might want to weigh the relative importance to them of the Sinfonia Antartica and the ninth symphony.

Stephen Barber
Previous review: Michael Cookson

Reviews of other releases
A Sea Symphony – review review review
A London Symphony – review review
A Pastoral Symphony – review review review
Symphonies 4 & 6 – review review
Symphonies 5 & 8 - review review review review review
Symphonies 7 & 9 - 

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