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]
Between February to May this year, 2022, in Manchester, the Hallé and the BBC Philharmonic celebrated the 150th anniversary of the birth of Ralph Vaughan Williams by performing between them a cycle of his nine symphonies under the title ‘Toward the Unknown Region – RVW150’.
Now the Hallé on its in-house label further mark the Vaughan Williams sesquicentennial with two major releases. First is this double set consisting of Sinfonia antartica (Symphony No. 7) and Symphony No. 9 both first Hallé recordings under its music director Sir Mark Elder, making this, the partnership’s symphonic cycle, complete. The couplings are a pair of much-loved orchestral works: the Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 and The Lark Ascending,
recordings previously issued by the Hallé on both its mixed composer album,
the single CD ‘English Landscapes’, and its 4 CD set
English Classics. Not reviewed here as yet, the second new release is a 5 CD box set of the complete Vaughan Williams symphonies. Although it is not strictly a symphony, I am disappointed that his Job, a Masque for Dancing isn’t included.
The Hallé is probably more closely associated with the music of Vaughan Williams than any composer except Elgar; its performance and recording tradition has assisted in establishing the status of this pair of great English composers and its then principal conductor Sir John Barbirolli benefitted from a cordial collaboration with Vaughan Williams which notably included the first recording of the Symphony No. 5 in 1944 and being entrusted with the premieres of both the Sinfonia antartica in 1953 and the Symphony No. 8 in 1956. In celebration of Vaughan Williams’ 80th birthday, the Hallé gave performances of all the composer’s symphonies that by then had reached Symphony No. 6.
Some years ago, I wrote that ‘few orchestras today play Vaughan Williams as well as the Hallé under Sir Mark Elder’, a belief I still hold. This pair of symphonies on the new album ranks as some of Elder’s greatest work with Hallé. When he conducts the them, I sense an inherent lucidity of vision for each score as he communicates a broad range of emotion, ranging from majestic awe to brooding reflection, to spine-chilling menace. Meticulously prepared, the Hallé responds so emphatically here to its music director.
The conception of the Sinfonia antartica began when Vaughan Williams was writing the score to ‘Scott of the Antarctic’ the Ealing Studios Technicolor film (1948) directed by Charles Frend and starring John Mills. It relates the disastrous 1910-12 expedition of Captain Robert Falcon Scott to reach the South Pole, resulting in Scott and his team of four all perishing on the return journey.
Sinfonia antartica was reworked from the film score, including unused material, and the Hallé Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli premiered the score in 1953 at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester to a generally positive reception. Music writer Mark Morris wrote that the Sinfonia antartica has been ‘treated as the ugly duckling’ of the Vaughan Williams cycle. Rather than a conventional symphony, some consider the work as a suite of film music. I tend to think of it as a large-scale symphonic poem, seeing clear parallels to Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony (1915). Sir Adrian Boult’s view was that it couldn’t really be classed as a symphony and Job fitted that description more nearly. It is Vaughan Williams’ largest orchestral work, including the use of a solo soprano and women’s chorus both wordless, while to the percussion battery he adds a wind machine, gongs, side drum, glockenspiel, xylophone and vibraphone plus a celesta, piano and organ.
To each of the score’s five movements - Prelude, Scherzo, Landscape, Intermezzo and Epilogue - Vaughan Williams prefaced a short literary quotation from Shelley, Psalm 104, Coleridge, Donne and Captain Scott respectively. Sometimes performances and recordings contain narrations of these quotations. Having attended a couple of live performances of the Sinfonia antartica, I find the work eminently dramatic and relish its contrasting episodes. It’s certainly not difficult to imagine snow and ice, blizzards, bleak landscapes, glaciers, whales, penguins together with a range of human emotions such as exhilaration, suffering, numbing cold and hopelessness.
This outstanding performance was recorded in 2019 in the Bridgewater Hall, live and in rehearsal. The Hallé caught the essence of this graphically descriptive score, which I see as man pitted against nature at its most intractably brutal. It feels as if Elder and his players have conciliated the hostile environment of Antarctica with a deep understanding of the explorers’ raw, inner emotions. The core of the symphony is the middle movement, Landscape, in which the Hallé provide a mysterious and chilling depiction of the explorers’ interminable trudge through the frozen snow of the bleakest, most unforgiving terrain. Impeccable singing by soprano soloist Sophie Bevan and the sopranos and altos of the Hallé Choir add significantly to the atmosphere.
Probably the first Vaughan Williams work I heard, the Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 for orchestra remains a favourite work of mine. Cecil Sharp was at the forefront of the English folk-song revival and inspired Vaughan Williams to collect folk-songs. Based on a pair of Norfolk folk-songs, it was completed in 1906 and premiered under Henry Wood in a Proms concert the same year. A further two Norfolk Rhapsodies followed, works that he later withdrew. In 1914, Vaughan Williams chose to substantially revise Rhapsody No. 1 as the version heard here.
The Hallé made this recording in Manchester in the Studio 7, BBC New Broadcasting House, a building that was later demolished on account of the BBC’s relocation to MediaCityUK, Salford. Mark Elder lavishes the utmost care and attention on this enchanting score and the Halle make a strong impression, responding with expressive colours and engagingly atmospheric playing. A first-choice account of the Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 for its creation of a shadowy soundworld is played by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields under Sir Neville Marriner. Recorded in 1993 in the Abbey Road Studios, EMI, London, it is on a single all-Vaughan Williams CD on Philips [442 427-2].
The final work in Vaughan Williams’ symphonic cycle is the four movement Symphony No. 9, completed in 1958 just a few months before his death. It seems that the composer had received inspiration from various sources, including Thomas Hardy’s novel ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ and the novelist’s Wessex landscape, including Stonehenge. The composer’s harrowing experience of living through two world wars surely pervades the work, too. In addition to the standard large symphony orchestra, Vaughan Williams includes three saxophones and ideally a flugelhorn is used.
Much anticipated, the premiere was entrusted to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Malcolm Sargent in 1958 in the Royal Festival Hall, London. The symphony was received by the audience with courtesy rather than acclaim and subsequently there was much criticism; however, in recent decades the standing of the work has grown substantially. It is a symphony that didn’t make much sense the first time I heard it performed but now it is a work I relish for its dramatic impact.
I experience it as inscrutable, often innovative, and craggy, cloaked in a dark shadow of disillusionment sometimes resulting in brutality, notwithstanding its impudent, march-like rhythms and wistful pastoral episodes that bring some minor respite. Revealing a clear affinity for the score, Elder is unerring in his choice of pace, temperament and dynamics. This is exemplary playing by the Hallé, successfully realising the formidable character of the work that often feels crushing and convulsive.
My first choice among complete sets of Vaughan Williams’ ‘Nine Symphonies’ is the second of the two cycles conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. Boult’s powerfully expressive performances were recorded in stereo with the London Philharmonic Orchestra/New Philharmonia Orchestra in 1967/71 in London for EMI Classics. My set is on five remastered CDs on EMI Classics/Warner Classics . The same stereo cycle is also contained on 13 CD set of ‘The Complete EMI Recordings conducted by Sir Adrian Boult’. Boult now has tough competition from Elder and the Hallé who are leading choices among modern digital sets.
An enduringly popular work with audiences and soloists alike, The Lark Ascending, a Romance for violin and orchestra, has several times topped various listener polls as the Nations favourite classical work. In 2011, on the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Desert Island Discs’ The Lark Ascending was polled as the listener favourite to take to the mythical desert island.
Vaughan Williams found inspiration in the George Meredith poem of the same name concerning the tale of a skylark in flight singing a song of heavenly beauty. He began writing it in 1914 when the nation was on the cusp of the outbreak of world war. In its original scoring for violin and piano, it was revised and premiered in 1920 by soloist Marie Hall at Shirehampton, Bristol. Vaughan Williams orchestrated the score for violin with orchestra in 1920 and it was premiered in that form the next year by the British Symphony Orchestra under Adrian Boult in Queens Hall, London. On the front page of the score Vaughan Williams wrote twelve lines from the Meredith poem.
Hallé stalwart and leader Lyn Fletcher is the soloist in this account of The Lark Ascending from the same 2005 recording sessions as the Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1. She retired in 2019 having served as leader for over twenty years. Her playing is admirable - sincere, unpretentious in character and attractively toned. Nevertheless, no-one has captured the aching sense of introspection or rivalled the radiant beauty of tone that Hugh Bean achieved in his classic 1967 Abbey Road recording with the New Philharmonia Orchestra under Sir Adrian Boult on EMI.
This Hallé label double set of four Vaughan Williams works benefits from satisfying recording quality achieved in three different Manchester locations. Concerning the live Bridgewater Hall recording I have no problem with any unwanted noise and applause at the conclusion has been removed. The essays in the accompanying booklet are written by Andrew Burn and Michael Kennedy. The five short literary quotations for the Sinfonia antartica are provided, as are four of the twelve lines from Meredith poem’s The Lark Ascending.
With these exceptional recordings of the Sinfonia antartica and Symphony No. 9, the Hallé under Sir Mark Elder conclude their complete cycle of the Vaughan Williams symphonies in exemplary style.
rec. live and in rehearsal, 24th January 2019, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1, The Lark Ascending
rec. 5 & 6 November 2005, BBC Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester
Symphony No. 9
rec. 15-17 November 2021, Hallé St Peter’s, Ancoats, Manchester