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Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
The Complete Symphonies
A Sea Symphony (1903/09, rev. 1923)
A London Symphony (1913, rev. 1933-4)
A Pastoral Symphony (1921)
Symphony No. 4 in F minor (1931-34)
Symphony No.5 in D (1938-43)
Symphony No. 6 in E minor (1944-47)
Sinfonia Antartica (1949-52)
Symphony No. 8 in D minor (1953-55)
Symphony No. 9 in E minor (1956-57)
Sarah Fox, Sophie Bevan, Katherine Broderick (sopranos), Roderick Williams (baritone)
Schola Cantorum, Ad Solem, Hallé Choir, Hallé Youth Choir
Hallé Orchestra/Sir Mark Elder
rec. 2010-2021, various locations
HALLÉ CDHLD7557 [5 CDs: 366]

Consider for a moment composers who actively wrote multiple symphonies during the 20th Century. Then consider only those whose works have been recorded multiple times - which is surely a reasonable measure of enduring artistic and audience interest around the world. The resulting list is pretty small by my reckoning; Sibelius, Nielsen, Mahler, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Ralph Vaughan Williams immediately spring to mind. That is pretty mighty company for Vaughan Williams but I would argue that his position at this ‘top table’ is richly deserved.

In the year of the 150th anniversary of his birth this is a good time for record companies and listeners to re-evaluate his symphonic legacy. Since Sir Adrian Boult started his cycle with the LPO for Decca in the presence of the composer in the early 1950’s there have been more than a dozen complete cycles with many other conductors offering one or two of the symphonies in various combinations. Sir Mark Elder has been music director of the Hallé since October 2000 and by any measure that has been a richly productive relationship both in the concert hall and the recording studio. Begun in 2010, these artists have been slowly building a cycle of the nine Vaughan Williams Symphonies which has culminated very recently with the release of the Symphony No.9 recorded in November 2021. The original releases included couplings where disc space allowed. For this box of the symphonies alone, the Hallé’s own CD label has repackaged the performances onto five generously filled CDs. All of these recordings were made using standard CD definition engineering which I would say is good but not the finest I have heard – certainly there seems to be a preferred production choice of a recessed sound and the discs mastered at a lower level than normal. The box is made of neatly robust cardboard with the RVW150 logo. Inside are five similarly strong sleeves which reproduce the cover art from the original releases. The booklet in English only is clearly printed on good quality paper stock and reproduces, I assume, the essays from the original discs along with a fairly brief article called “The Hallé and Ralph Vaughan Williams” written by the orchestra’s archivist. The essays are predictably excellent given they were written by Michael Kennedy and Andrew Burn. Full texts for A Sea Symphony and the score superscriptions for Sinfonia Antartica are included. The booklet also includes several interesting and evocative photographs of the composer from the Hallé archive.

Aside from the considerable merits of each of these symphonies in isolation, the complete cycle can be interpreted as a testament to the extraordinary vision and creative creed of its composer. There is a deep thread of spirituality through all his works that seems to chime with many today uneasy with the power of organised religions. In her famous biography of her husband written in 1964 Ursula Vaughan Williams wrote; “He was an atheist during his later years at Charterhouse and at Cambridge, though he later drifted into a cheerful agnosticism: he was never a professing Christian.” I mention that here because I believe the entire cycle can be heard as an arc from an excited anticipation of journeying across the sea of life, through experience, doubt and struggle to a voyage into the ultimate unknown. For the purposes of this review it seems to make sense to treat the symphonies in order rather than as they are coupled in the box.

The opening of Symphony No.1 ‘A Sea Symphony’ still has the power to thrill over a century after its premiere in 1910. The composer was 38 years old by then so hardly a young man but he was still finding his voice as a composer. Much – too much I would say – is made of Vaughan Williams’ technical ‘failings’ as a composer. However, it has to be conceded that he makes it extremely hard for conductor, performers and indeed recording teams to find an ideal balance so that words, textures and detail can all be heard. This Hallé live performance tries to overcome this by placing the microphones back into the Bridgewater Hall but combining this with some discreet spotlighting so that the two vocal soloists can be clearly heard. The liner lists four distinct choral groups although the total number of voices is not listed they make a very impressive sound – exactly the kind of ‘festival’ scale I imagine Vaughan Williams wanted. The price is that the orchestral writing often lacks the bite and presence that can make this work so powerful. For instance the opening B minor/E major fanfare is weighty but not nearly as electrifying as it can be. Curiously, the organ part that the composer adds at key climaxes is near inaudible and that is a big miss. In the opening movement Elder favours a rather broad style – similar in overall timing to Haitink’s EMI/LPO recording and a full minute slower than Boult’s seminal Decca recording or indeed Previn’s RCA/LSO performance from the early 70’s. Another American conductor enamoured of Vaughan Williams is Leonard Slatkin and he also made a live recording which featured on a cover disc for the BBC Music Magazine. His opening movement is quite thrilling and a full two minutes faster than Elder. For sure the Royal Albert Hall never helps with instrumental detail but the exultant sweep and ardour of that performance is irresistible especially with the underpinning pedals of the organ stunningly present. Returning to this Elder performance – baritone Roderick Williams must be considered one of the leading singers of British music working today and his handling of the Whitman text is nothing short of excellent - tonally rich but textually sensitive. Of course he follows in the footsteps of many great baritones singing this part but he is their equal. I also enjoyed the flashing-eyed attack of soprano Katherine Broderick. She has a slightly curious bite to the front of notes in her first entry; “flaunt out O sea your separate flags of nations!” but it is thrilling. Boult’s plumy Isobel Baillie sounds rather twee and constrained alongside her. Throughout the entire performance the combined choirs are genuinely excellent – fearless and accurate in alt but with consistent power and beauty of tone. Elder helps them with one of the steadiest third movements Scherzo – The Waves where he is a full 1:10 slower than Boult who does achieve a foam-flecked brilliance that still registers remarkably well in a 70 year old recording. The sense of scale and breadth in this performance is confirmed by the closing The Explorers which in Elder’s hands lasts a fairly epic 30:23. Slatkin with the BBC SO is a good two and a half minutes swifter and Thomson on Chandos with the LSO nearer three. Handley in Liverpool is closer to Elder’s broad approach. I must admit I enjoyed Elder’s take . After all this orchestra and choir are very experienced performing these big English oratorio-type scores – think of their Elgar choral discs and so perhaps best to hear this performance as an extension of this style rather than a breaking of the British tradition of the Festival Oratorio.

Symphony No.2 ‘A London Symphony’ is Vaughan Williams at his most pictorial – there is a literalism in his sound painting that for me keeps this music pictorial rather than impressionistic. Of course the composer did state that the work should stand or fall as ‘absolute music’ but a conductor who ignores the illustrative aspects of the piece misses out on a major emotional facet it contains. Elder performs the standard 1934 final revision. This was the first of the symphonies to be recorded for this cycle by Elder back in 2010 and as with the Sea Symphony the model of taping a live performance with rehearsal patching was followed. In fact six of the nine symphonies here were so recorded with the remaining three – Nos. 3,8 & 9 being studio recordings. All of the ‘live’ performances were produced and engineered by Steve Portnoi. I noticed the slightly recessed sound in No.1 which I put down to the necessary handling of such large forces. However, it was noticeable that I needed to turn the volume up a couple of notches from the usual setting but the overall sound lacked some bite. This was the same with A London Symphony.

The simplest description I would make of this performance is measured. The atmospheric opening of the work and closing epilogue are very beautiful and poised. Likewise the string-led churchyard interlude in the first movement and the plaintive cor anglais solo that opens the second movement Lento are quite gorgeous. But other moments – the closing bars of the first movement, the flickering drama of the Scherzo Noctune (along with insipid mouth-organ imitating horns), or the great cry at the opening of the Finale are crucially under projected. This is not just a case of cranking up the volume – there is a distinct sense that the playing is being held, contained. Overall Elder’s tempi lie at the slower end of the general range although not markedly so – Previn’s much admired LSO recording is near identical but the extra level of drama on display in that old recording is palpable. This is a well-prepared, very well played performance that stubbornly refuses to catch fire and as such is a considerable disappointment.

Both Symphonies 1 and 2 show Vaughan Williams on the verge of individual genius. His Symphony No.3 ‘Pastoral’ reveals that genius in full flood. Full flood might be a contradiction for a work where agonised restraint is a key trait. Michael Kennedy’s liner note written in 2014 describes this as “[Vaughan Williams’] greatest and most original symphony” – an opinion which I share. For the simple reason that this is the work where the composer’s unique and original voice is most powerfully wedded to music of universal relevance and impact. Elder’s performance strikes me as significantly more impressive in this symphony than the preceding one. His choice of tempi is near ideal finding a balance between the essential meditative quality of the work without it becoming becalmed. In fact this score is a case in point of Vaughan Williams’ masterful handling of his musical material. He is continuously adjusting the metre from 4/4 to 3/4 , 3/2 and more which removes any sense of predictable downbeat becoming instead a stream of musical consciousness. Elder is very good at following the little tweaks to dynamic and tempi too. As a recording detail is well resolved but the textures are well integrated too – it is strikingly noticeable that this studio-sourced recording has greater immediacy than either of the previous ‘live’ ones.. My only concern was that Elder allowed the upper end of the dynamic range to be a little too loud. The loudest tutti dynamic in this movement is a briefly touched upon f which happens twice and is retreated from almost as soon as it arrives. Tellingly Vaughan Williams does not ask for ff until the second movement immediately the heart-breaking natural trumpet’s ‘last-post’. By that measure – the first movement climaxes – beautifully executed though they are – are just a little to full toned.

That last-post is one of Vaughan Williams’ most poignant and powerful creations as well as being the most explicit reference to his wartime experiences in France. The uncredited trumpeter for the Hallé plays this very well but this same passage was even more breathtaking in Martin Brabbins’ performance with the BBC SO on Hyperion as part of his as yet incomplete cycle (another victim of covid I assume preventing completion in time for the 2022 celebrations). In part that worked so well because Brabbins’ placed his player off-stage. Elder keeps them in the body of the orchestra – as the score indicates – however the BBC’s trumpeter has greater expressive freedom as well which pays rich dividends. Another passing moment of orchestrational genius is well caught in this movement too – Elder has his violins placed antiphonally and so Vaughan Williams’ gorgeous intertwining string lines pass across the orchestra very beautifully. The closing pages of this movement are again very sensitively played with the echoing natural horn playing p balanced very effectively against the shadowing clarinet marked pp. It is in the successfully realisation of subtle moments like this that the magic resides. The only extended passages of anything like fast music occur in the 3rd movement which is still just marked moderato pesante. Again Vaughan Williams is quite fluid within his tempo marking with nudges of the basic pulse. Elder seems to try and find a relationship between sections which results in piu mosso or poco animato markings being exaggerated. The result is a generally quite fast version of this movement – beautifully played but perhaps just too swift to inhabit the “nature of a slow dance” that Kennedy quotes the composer as describing. Interesting to note that both of Boult’s studio recordings for Decca and EMI are exactly the same length – 6:19 – half a minute slower than Elder. Even Boult’s live version released on the BBC Classics label is 6:20. Given that Boult gave the work its premiere hard not to believe his insights have special merit. After a gentle timpani role, the finale opening with one of Vaughan Williams’ great pieces of musical theatre; a solo voice – surely a soprano as here and on most recordings is preferable – sings a wordless cantilena. As one it is both ravishingly beautiful and heart-breaking. On this recording it is well sung by Sarah Fox – but other singers on other recordings are simply better. Fox uses a very fast vibrato which imparts an energy (and thereby eliminates the serenity) to the vocal line it does not require. Also apart from an admonition to be “not too slow” there is no dynamic marking. Although distantly placed (as indicated by the score) Fox tends to use dynamics to follow the line – so as it ascends she sings louder in fact quite a lot louder.. Somehow this diminishes the other-worldliness of the passage. Elizabeth Watts for Brabbins or Margaret Price for Boult/EMI embody this quality beautifully – as does Valerie Hill emerging through the analogue hiss of Boult’s live recording from Maida Vale in 1966.

After this vocal cadenza, the orchestra slowly unfurls a stately dance. Elder’s tempos here are absolutely right – noble and held but with a steady momentum that allows the music to blossom. In the following animato sections he does take this to mean quite significantly quicker which it does not literally mean – “lively” not directly equating with tempo which then can result in unwritten slowing ups to get back to the main tempo 1. The final great molto largamente “alleluia” is well achieved before the music sinks down to allow the soprano vocalise to close the work. This time the solo is marked pp which it does not feel Fox truly attempts which is a shame as the orchestral playing is beautifully poised. Overall an impressive and committed performance although not one that eradicates the memory of existing favourites.

Symphony No.4 in F minor returns to the live/rehearsal patching format. Until Vaughan Williams produced his last three symphonies in close order there had been a fairly substantial gap between each work. So having written the haunted Pastoral in 1921, he did not return to symphonic form for another fourteen years. The impact of the violent and unforgiving fourth symphony is well known as is his comment about the work; “I don’t know if I like it, but it’s what I meant.” Certainly the spirit of malice in the work renders it unique in the composer’s output. Even Symphony No.6 with which it shares certain characteristics is more of a bleak landscape rather than the turmoil of No.4. Aside from the emotional content of the work, Vaughan Williams had not written any music at this sustained level of dissonance or rhythmic complexity up to this time. He denied that the music carried any intimation of the World War to come – given that the work’s origins were as far back as 1931 that seems reasonable. Technically the performance here is again very good. For modern orchestras the overlapping rhythms and jagged writing offers few problems and certainly the Hallé play with easy precision. Elder’s interpretation is pretty centrist – no major surprises in any regard. I have heard opening movements with more bite and fury but I rather like the uneasy calm Elder brings to the close of the first movement which leads well into the weary tread of the following andante moderato. The symphony was one of two Paavo Berglund recorded for EMI. No.4 was with the RPO and it is one of the few (relatively) modern versions that gets somewhere near the sweeping power the composer drew from the BBC SO in his famous 1937 recording. Much as I engaged with this Elder performance – and indeed the recent much praised LSO Live recording from Antonio Pappano - when I return to the Berglund (or Vaughan Williams’ own), I have a sense of ‘rightness’. That said there is much to appreciate in this Hallé performance. Elder keeps the sense of malice in the Scherzo and the transition to the finale – the most obvious part of the work to mimic Beethoven’s Symphony No.5 – is very well handled. Berglund is positively brusque compared to Elder’s more humane approach. This is a movement where it could be argued that some of Vaughan Williams’ writing and indeed scoring is rather unsubtle. Elder’s solution is certainly very musical and smoothes away some of those rough edges whereas Berglund makes no such concessions. Ultimately both versions are valid and work – it will be for the listener to decide whether they prefer the rawness of Berglund over the sophistication of Elder.

As Michael Kennedy’s liner points out – when Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No.5 was premiered in May 1943 it was perceived as a valedictory work. After all, its composer was seventy and surely was unlikely to write many more large-scale symphonic scores. Also, at that time, the use Vaughan Williams made of musical material previously written for his opera The Pilgrim’s Progress with the spiritual resonance those themes have was not known or appreciated. Little did anyone know that Vaughan Williams would write another four symphonies so instead of representing closure it actually, in a very real sense, was central to his symphonic output. If the Pastoral Symphony is his most personal work, then Symphony No.5 is possibly his most perfect. Written in the midst of a war that it seemed probable Britain would lose, it is a remarkable affirmation of faith in the human spirit. This work can be seen as the calm still centre in the storm of life. The work uses Vaughan Williams’ most modest symphonic orchestra with no percussion or harp or unusual woodwind. The knotty textures and rhythms of the preceding symphony are replaced by clarity of line and harmony. Elder’s opening Preludio flows along at a tempo that places him at the faster end of the range of tempi – 11:28 which is almost identical to Boult/EMI but a minute quicker than Haitink/EMI which was the performance chosen by William Hedley in his comparative survey for the Vaughan Williams Society newsletter in 2001 (pre-Brabbins, Manze or of course Elder). If Symphony No.4 offers clear difficulties for the orchestra in many ways those of No.5 are just as tricky if less obvious. The Hallé navigate these with ease – the quicksilver string writing in the second movement Scherzo as lithe and playful as you will ever hear.

If the Symphony No.5 lies at the heart of the cycle of symphonies then the third movement Romanza in turn lies at the heart of the work. By one of those neat occurrences Vaughan Williams wrote thirty seven symphonic movements, eight symphonies each with four and one – Antartica – with five. The Romanza is the nineteenth movement – the numerical epi-centre of the entire cycle. After a hushed series of chords the cor anglais plays a melody that in The Pilgrim’s Progress sets the words; “He hath given me rest by His sorrow and life by His death”. In fact this movement inspires beautiful playing from many of the orchestras and conductors who have recorded it. Again Elder’s overall timing sits at the slower end of the range – Davis’ Teldec/BBC SO and Previn’s Telarc/RPO remake are two who linger even more lovingly. Much as the corresponding solo in A London Symphony, the Hallé’s cor player finds a withdrawn pensive quality that draws the listener in, aided by some ravishingly hushed string playing. Actually this entire movement is a highlight of these recordings so far.

Part of the genius of this work is the way that Vaughan Williams draws on a wide range of influences to create a sense of timeless continuum. So there are echoes of folksong, Elizabethan music, hymns and indeed literary as evidence by the Bunyan themes. So no real surprise that the finale should in turn use an older musical form – here a passacaglia. In this movement I found Elder to be less successful – somehow rather heavy-handed and also not handling the transitions between the thematic evolution of the passacaglia especially well. The flow and through thread of the movement is disrupted. Unusually in this movement Elder is one of the quicker versions – 10:00 (although Boult/EMI is a few seconds quicker here the music feels more seamless) – but this is a question of feel rather than simple speed.

After the benediction offered by Symphony No.5 the bleak and despairing landscapes of Symphony No.6 come as something of a shock. Elder’s opening Allegro is again at a fairly standard mid-range tempo. The disappointment is that the music does not rage as it surely must. The orchestra play everything very well, again the live/patched recording is at a lower level than many other recordings taking some of the attack and presence from the orchestra. This symphony was one of Hickox’s partial Chandos cycle that I particularly enjoy. He found a balance between the rage and the curiously good-humoured saxophone who galumphs along like some latter day Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Before he embarked on a complete cycle with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Vernon Handley recorded two of the symphonies for CFP. One was a fairly blistering Symphony No.6 albeit in rather harshly remastered sound. Elder in such company sounds rather pale. At the other extreme is Berglund’s other Vaughan Williams Symphony. This time with his ‘own’ Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra with a first movement weightier and granitic than any other version – he takes a full 36:23 for this symphony compared to Elder’s 32:09 – and that is with Berglund quicker in the malevolent Scherzo by a full 36 seconds. I am not sure I would always want to hear the work played with Berglund’s implacable resolve or Handley’s cut and thrust but I find either more compelling than Elder’s relatively anonymous middle ground. The bleached finale is a problem for performers and engineers alike. Boult, both live at the Proms and in his EMI recording stretch this uniquely disturbing movement out beyond 11:00 but the way in which the tension is maintained – even allowing for obligato coughing from the Royal Albert Hall audience is palpable. Pappano in his LSO Live version is helped by modern technology to maintain a true pp in a silent Barbican Hall with his version a full two minutes slower than Elder. The hard thing for the conductor is to find the balance between intervention – making more of the minimalist material than is required – or doing too little leaving the notes to meander on in a frankly boring way. Elder’s answer is to keep the music flowing which is a sensible if rather safe solution. The result is some lovely playing but lacking the held-breath tension of the finest performances.

Symphony No.7 ‘Sinfonia Antartica’ is another live/patched recording and one that was made just a couple of months before the covid pandemic swept across the planet. A small but noticeable feature of this recording is that a couple of audience coughs and general ‘noises off’ are audible – for all the other live recordings in this set there are no extraneous sounds at all. Just how symphonic a work has occupied critics and musicologists ever since its premiere by the Hallé in 1953. At seventy years distance this seems less relevant. Clearly what did occupy Vaughan Williams was the concept of man pitted against nature where indomitable spirit faces implacable forces. The themes for the symphony were drawn from the 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic. The illustrative requirements of the film required the composer to experiment with instrumental colours and textures in a new way and these he carried over into the symphony. For a composer celebrating his 80th birthday, the scale and effectiveness of these scores is genuinely remarkable. For the opening of the Prelude Elder adopts a weighty tempo that has real menace although it should be noted that to achieve this his basic tempo for the opening is considerably slower than the crochet/quarter note = 80 that is marked in the score. The recording then captures the eerie skittering writing for xylophone, piano and harp very well and the distant soprano of Sophie Bevan and the ladies of the Hallé chorus are pretty much ideally positioned in the frozen wastes. Boult for EMI is much more urgent in this section and his soprano Norma Burrows has an even lighter tone but is kept closer to the orchestra. Haitink’s version is one of the major successes of his cycle – the LPO caught is powerful early digital sound with the first main climax suitably awe-inspiring but the following section again lacks the atmosphere Elder generates. Only Previn with the LSO is as slow as Elder in this opening section. I must admit I think this works very well somehow combining the massiveness of the landscape with the obdurate will of the explorers. The Previn does sound its age alongside the Elder but in the remastered version it is still pretty compelling. The Scherzo that follows is marked moderato and here Elder is much closer to the given tempo marking. Boult in both his recordings – of course the composer was present for the Decca sessions – is markedly faster than the score as is Barbirolli in his 1953 recording both of which presumably Vaughan Williams approved so the very exact (slower) marking in the score that Elder observes is a little mystery. What this tempo – and the engineering here – succeeds in doing is to allow the originality of Vaughan Williams’ glittering orchestration to register. The evocation of sunlight on the ice floes is remarkable.

The combination of menace and beauty carries into the next movement Landscape. Again the recording captures the detail of the orchestration very well with the overlapping clash and suspended cymbals over rapid harp glissandi so effective. I did find myself wondering if Vaughan Williams made himself familiar with any of the scoring ticks of the Hollywood greats before writing this score as there are moments that evoke the sound worlds of Korngold or Herrmann in particular. As this movement builds Vaughan Williams writes one of his great theatrical moments the fff organ solo. The problem is that Vaughan Williams leaves the organ alone at this dynamic having had the entire orchestra accompanying the organ pedals up to this moment ff. Clearly the solo organ is meant to create a climax by ‘topping’ the previous dynamic. Here it does not – the registration sounds good but again frustratingly recessed. To be fair, it is a technical challenge for most of the familiar recordings with either an underwhelming organ (Rozhdestenvenky’s even more recessed than Elder’s) or the instrument brought synthetically forward in the mix by the engineers – Previn/LSO a particular culprit. Boult/EMI is guilty of the latter too although better handled than Previn but the best are probably Boult/Decca and Haitink for whom this is truly a moment of shock and awe. Handley’s RLPO/EMI version – a cycle often maligned for less than great engineering – is also better here than most. Interestingly Haitink is also a full minute slower in this movement than Elder thereby underlining the epic essence of the music.

After the heroics of Landscape, the following Intermezzo returns to Vaughan Williams in near pastoral(!) mood. Again Elder rather underplays the dynamic range in the movement – it is again beautifully played but frustrating in the way drama and contrast are played down. But the role of this movement is as an interlude before the final failed heroics of the closing Epilogue. The superscription for this movement is the powerful excerpt taken from Captain Scott’s diary found when the bodies of the explorers were found; “we took risks, we knew we took them, things have come out against us...” The music powerfully evokes the trudge of the doomed men against their inexorable fate. My response to this specific performance is again mixed; I like the feel and character Elder evokes but it is still under projected. Some of the brass writing is marked ff in the score but the result here seems more concerned with sonorous beauty than craggy struggle. The closing pages where the off-stage vocalises from the solo soprano and female voices are again well done and atmospheric.

Symphony No.8 receives a wholly successful performance – easily one of the best in the box. Coincidentally(?), this is one of the studio recordings overseen by Andrew Keener and engineered by Simon Eadon. Keener of course was producer for both the Handley and Slatkin cycles as well as the exact same team having produced/engineered all of the Brabbins/Hyperion cycle to date. So they have probably recorded more Vaughan Williams Symphonies than anyone else alive. Certainly the recorded sound here for Elder is instantly more present and impactful and vibrant. This D minor Symphony is the composer at his most absolute yet light-hearted in musical terms. All other symphonies could be argued as having at least an element of extra-musical ‘meaning’. Here, Vaughan Williams revels in textures and sonorities. Possibly, that is why it is my least favourite of the cycle but I have to say this version I enjoyed as much as any I can remember. I wonder if having ‘discovered’ the potential of all the tuned percussion and extra instruments he used for Antartica, Vaughan Williams wanted to explore the sonorities and textures these instruments would bring in an emotionally neutral setting. The sound here is a delight – twinkling and bright both literally and in spirit. The opening Fantasia is something of a compositional tour de force – “seven variations in search of a theme” as Vaughan Williams characterised it. Those themes are beautifully varied and defined here. The second movement Scherzo alla Marcia for woodwind and brass only had me thinking back to Holst’s wonderful Suites for Military Band. I wonder if this was one last final tribute to one of Vaughan Williams’ oldest friends? Certainly the performance here bubbles with a wit and energy belying the composer’s eighty three years when he wrote it. The slow third movement for strings alone is another of those rhapsodic string pieces that were uniquely his own. Here the concern is more for texture and line rather than the ecstatic weight generated by the Tallis Fantasia. Again, Elder’s relative detachment brings dividends with the recording capturing the antiphonal violin writing discreetly but effectively. I must admit to never having really enjoyed the closing Toccata – Vaughan Williams’ famous use of “all the ‘phones and ‘spiels known to the composer” does rather feel applied to from the outside in with the instrumental effects bolted onto the musical structure. This is the shortest finale Vaughan Williams ever wrote and right down to the abrupt ending it feels rather forced in its festive mood. Again the performance here is very good.

If Symphony No.8 feels a bit like a great composer treading water, Symphony No.9 is a nailed on masterpiece. The fact that such searching music could be written by someone in the mid-eighties is simply astonishing. Where Vaughan Williams the young(ish) composer confronted the unknown in The Sea Symphony as life yet to be explored, here the old man acknowledges that same unknown as death but with a similar questing curiosity. Of course many composers have “Indian Summers” but I cannot think of that many who are still pushing their personal boundaries quite as much as Vaughan Williams does in this work. As such it remains a challenging and elusive work and one of the least known in the cycle. That said, there have been several very successful versions starting with the first Boult. This was famously recorded the morning after the composer’s death and was released in stereo on the Everest label although the latest remastering of the Decca cycle in a slimline box reunited this performance with the rest of the Decca-sourced recordings. For me Leonard Slatkin’s Philharmonia cycle on RCA is uneven ranging from excellent to superficial but his Symphony No.9 is one of the very best. I have not heard any of the Andrew Manze cycle which includes a controversial last symphony with the outer movements unusually slow.

As with several of Elder’s cycle this proves to be a pretty centrist version. It again benefits from being a studio recording although this time Steve Portnoi is only responsible for the engineering with Jeremy Hayes producing. The result is a more immediate soundscape that is beneficial to every aspect of the music-making. However, I do find that in direct comparison to various other versions Elder is safe rather than characterful. Listening to other performances does reinforce the sense of just how remarkable many aspects of this work are. Most striking is Vaughan Williams’ use of a trio of saxophones. Clearly this was not the first time he had used a saxophone but I cannot think of another single example in the entire classical music repertoire where a group of these instruments are used in a purely symphonic/timbral way which does not reflect the saxophone’s use as a jazz instrument. Other than that the orchestra is a fairly standard triple wind set up although Vaughan Williams also adds key passages on the flugel horn.

Roy Douglas wrote a brief but fascinating book; “Working with R.V.W.” [pub. OUP 1972] which details the years 1944 -58 when he worked as transcriber, editor and general musical advisor to the composer. His comments regarding the last three symphonies are all interesting but especially so with regard to tempo and this final symphony. The premiere was conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent and to quote Douglas; “I say ‘first hearing’ deliberately rather than ‘performance’ because this may indicate how intensely I disliked Sargent’s version of the Ninth Symphony....clearly the nobility and grandeur of the composer’s conception meant nothing to him..... one of many faults in a most unmusicianly account of the entire symphony”. Douglas goes on to praise Sir Adrian Boult and states that Boult’s performance of the symphony – some five minutes slower than Sargent - is far to be preferred. By that measure perhaps Boult is the yardstick against which to gauge other performances. Elder is even slower than Boult in the first and last movements, a bit quicker in the second movement Andante sostenuto and nearly identical in the following Scherzo – allegro pesante. But as so often simple ‘speed’ as opposed to energy are quite different things. Certainly Elder makes the third movement very ‘pesante’ but in so doing it does feel rather heavy and underenergised. Boult’s recording is remarkably fine technically for something nearly three quarters of a century old. Slatkin’s solution of giving everything a burst of tempo-fuelled adrenalin [4:52 compared to Boult’s 5:38] is, I suspect, exactly the kind of thing that invoked Douglas’ scorn at the premiere [Bryden Thomson with the LSO would likewise incur the wrath of Douglas I am sure]. Despite knowing that, I have to say I still enjoy the sheer verve of Slatkin even when the focus is on “allegro” rather than “pesante”. A big help with Slatkin is the excellence of the recording – substantially better than the already good Elder. The preceding Andante Sostenuto is again well played but somehow lacks a compelling direction and as with many parts of this cycle, musically is crucially short of bite.

Vaughan Williams closes his cycle with a remarkable movement marked Andante tranquillo. To my mind the ‘tranquillo’ marking is key as it indicates an acceptance of what is to come while still questing. This is quite a contrast to the closing movement of his other E minor Symphony No.6 with its bleak unforgiving landscape. The Symphony No.9 seems to recall some of Vaughan Williams’ pastoral evocations – Douglas mentions an “unconscious reminiscence of Madama Butterfly” in this movement that still eludes me. Listening to Boult’s first recording objectively it is hard not to feel that he achieves a subtler balance between the “andante” and the “tranquillo” than Elder. There is a greater sense of unrushed flow which allows the music to lilt in an unforced yet ecstatic way. It seems wholly apposite that this remarkable sequence of works should end in such a calm but confident manner with a final radiant E major chord receding into the far distance.

It has been a long time since I have listened to the Vaughan Williams symphonies is such a concentrated manner in order. From this exercise my conclusion is they are possibly even greater as a body of work than I had previously consciously acknowledged. The fact that they speak to an audience enough to continue to merit performing and recording is a wonderful thing. For all the sincerity and skill evident in this cycle from Mark Elder and his excellent Hallé I must admit to being rather underwhelmed as a whole. In part, I think this is due to choices made by the producer and engineer of the ‘live’ recordings. Too much bite and cragginess in these scores is lost to be replaced by Elder’s preference for elegant refined textures and moderate tempi. The result is a certain ‘middle ground’ approach that never offends but rarely transports. There are highlights – I enjoyed the singing of choir and soloists in The Sea Symphony, The Pastoral Symphony (except for the singing!), the Romanza of Symphony No.5 and Symphony No.8. Every cycle will have highpoints and no cycle can ever tick every box. By that measure Boult/Decca ought to be known by any Vaughan Williams admirer and for me Previn/LSO remains a first love. As this Elder box is marketed as a set, it stands or falls as a set, by that measure more impressive and compelling options exist.

Nick Barnard

Reviews of individual 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
Symphionies 7 & 9 - review

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