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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Symphony No 5 (1943) [34:46]
Symphony No 6 (1947) [34:12]
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
rec. 16 August 1972 (6) and 4 August 1975 (5), Royal Albert Hall, London, UK

It’s not often that a disc annotator does the critic’s job for him, but Martin Cotton has done pretty much that in his annotations for this ICA release that contains two RVW symphonies conducted by Boult. The earlier of the two performances is the Sixth, a strongly argued and tightly constructed affair, if very occasionally compromised by small sectional infelicities, whilst the 1975 recording of No 5 is memorable for its handling of the Romanza.

Boult had a strong association with the Sixth Symphony, given at the Proms here in August 1972, and this reading sounds most like his 1949-50 recording with the LSO (with the original Scherzo) rather than the 1953 LPO or the stereo New Philharmonia in 1967 (review). The moderato’s oscillations are most persuasively caught here and whilst not as radical a rethinking as the later performance of No 5 shows a command of the music’s rhetoric that had been bred in the bone for over two decades. The dynamics of the percussion are especially well caught in this intense live reading. Boult’s handling of the saxophones and percussion in the Scherzo is not far behind Stokowski’s in dynamism whilst you really would need to go back nearly a quarter of a century for a comparable reading of the Epilogue, so eerie is its handling in this performance.

But it’s the Fifth that really sets this disc apart. There’s a sloppy critical view that Boult slowed up as he aged and that endemic weaknesses in his approach to orchestral discipline became more pronounced as he did so. That’s simply not true. This Fifth shows a real command of the music’s harmonic modulations, which are given great structural strength, and in a forward-moving impetus that is even more motoric than the somewhat papery 1953 recording. There’s more fluidity in the pastoral elements of the Scherzo, which is only a matter of 20 seconds slower than the earlier reading and the same tempo as he took in 1969. But it’s in the Romanza that one feels the weight of his most radical overhaul, in a reading that is three minutes quicker than Previn’s. I can only think that this is Boult’s riposte to that 1972 LP recording; that Previn, whom Boult is known to have admired, offered him - almost in default - an opportunity to ratchet the music’s intensity, volatility, and insistent stoicism to a degree wholly unmatched in the conductor’s discography. Like it or not, it also offers a wholly different slant on a movement that has reached canonic status for its leisurely pastoralism. Not here, for sure.

This BBC recording, taken from two concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, has been well remastered and sounds attractively present and preserves some wild applause. These CD recordings, reissued for the first time in the case of the Fifth, reinforce Boult’s credentials as an unsparing and critically penetrating interpreter of VW’s music, and one who was not prepared to peddle his accumulated thoughts, or to sit back on his status, but rather to think anew about works central to his repertory.

Jonathan Woolf

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