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Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
A London Symphony (No.2)
Symphony No.5 in D major – World premiere performance
Symphony No.5 in D major
Dona Nobis Pacem
Renée Flynn (soprano), Roy Henderson (baritone)
London Symphony Orchestra (London), London Philharmonic Orchestra (sym 5), BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus (Pacem)/Ralph Vaughan Williams
rec. 13 November 1936 (Pacem), BBC Studios London; 31 July 1943 (sym 5 premiere), 24 June 1946 (London), 3 September 1952 (sym 5), Royal Albert Hall, London
Vaughan Williams Live Volume 3

When asked by a friend how it was that Vaughan Williams had not made more recordings of his own works than the handful he did, his widow Ursula Vaughan Williams replied; “because nobody asked him”. Yet those few commercial recordings, supplemented by the off-air performances preserved here show the composer to be an extraordinarily compelling and convincing interpreter of his own music. This is the third volume of “Vaughan Williams Live” that SOMM have released as part of their contribution to 2022’s 150th Anniversary celebrations. Each release has focussed on the work of a different conductor, Sargent on Volume 1, Boult – magnificently – on Volume 2 with the composer himself ascending the podium for the two-disc Volume 3. The second CD includes a pair of performances that have been previously released on SOMM back in 2007 (review) although this iteration of those performances is newly remastered by audio-restoration wizard Lani Spahr using different original recorded sources – more about these performances later.

The performances that will especially intrigue and excite Vaughan Williams enthusiasts appear on CD 1 of this set. Both were given at the Proms with that of Symphony No.5 the remarkable World Premiere taking place at the height of World War II on June 24th 1943. I am no expert regarding the existence of archive recordings of or by this composer but certainly I was not aware that this performance had survived. But placed first on the disc is another performance I had no idea existed – A London Symphony dating from three years later on July 31st 1946. No surprise that Vaughan Williams uses the 1936 ‘final’ revision of the score. Perhaps what is more of a surprise is just what a dynamic, sinewy and dramatic reading of the score this is. By the time of this performance the composer was in his mid-70’s but he galvanises the LSO into as exciting and urgent a performance of this work as any I have heard. This is not an impatient reading, but conversely Vaughan Williams chooses not to linger or brood over passages where other interpreters have. In recent times there has been a lively debate about the validity of Vaughan Williams’ various revisions of this symphony which progressively cut passages and tightened the structure but at the price of some genuinely beautiful music. Hearing the composer’s own performance here which is lean and focussed, it is not hard to appreciate why he wanted to tighten up the work and minimise any potential discursiveness in both performance and in print.

There is a major caveat that collectors need to consider of both this performance and the Symphony No.5 premiere; as technical recordings they are not complete. The audio sources have come from the Kenneth Leech archive held by the British Library. A useful note in the liner explains that Leech was Chief Draughtsman to the Admiralty up until 1957 but he was a music enthusiast who made many off-air recordings of BBC broadcasts. His equipment was pretty much state-of-the-art for its time but it did require the discs onto which the broadcast was recorded to be swapped over every four or so minutes. The result for the modern listener is ‘breaks’ in the movements when the discs were swapped. The SOMM liner carefully lists these as “cuts” but in reality they are ‘omissions’ since they are made for technical rather than musical reasons. Each movement of both symphonies is subject to at least one break with the first two movements in each work having two. The best analogy I can come up with is when viewing an ancient fresco or mosaic which has been damaged over the centuries; you can see where parts of the original artwork are missing but the sense of the total magnificence of the original remains. The liner suggests that the value/importance of these performances and the insight they give us into the mind of their creator as conductor outweighs the lack of continuity these breaks cause. I have to say I would agree with that view. Of course there is frustration that a favourite passage suddenly fades out and then resumes anything from just 10” to 1’ 20” later (these are approximate timings worked out by lining up the sections of this performance against the template of Boult’s complete Decca performances and seeing how much is ‘missing’).

But rather than focus on those missing pages, the real value of this recording is to give the modern listener – and indeed interpreter – an insight into how the composer conceived this work. The opening mysterious Lento has a flow where others linger and the following allegro is truly “risoluto” but at a tempo that allows woodwind figures to dance in a playful and convincing way – I was delighted to hear how he allows the low brass to highlight their vulgar “all together now” phrase where other performances marginalise it almost in embarrassment. The assumption has to be that he wrote the phrase knowing it was ‘crude’ but meant to be audible. Vaughan Williams essentially maintains this forward momentum, even when the recurring brass fanfare figure is reached, to thrilling effect. Yes, the tempo does relax a little for the beautiful ‘churchyard’ interlude but once that is passed he is nudging the tempo back up towards his original tempo 1. Frustratingly, this is where one of the disc changes occur, so quite how he negotiates the return to the main tempo is not clear. But once there the drive to the closing bars of the movement is just wonderful with a sense of energetic release and ultimate arrival that is as exultant as any version I have ever heard. The second movement Lento is again allowed to flow so the lavender seller’s song – rather beautifully played here by the principal viola – can be lyrical but not indulgent. I am sure a rather curious mis-read by the principal clarinet, just before the sleigh bells are heard for the first time, must have produced at least a quizzically raised eyebrow from the podium but again the totality of the movement is wonderfully realised with the central climax a great collective cry. The Scherzo/Nocturne sets off at a bright and nimble tempo perhaps with less lurking malice than some versions find but instead this becomes a light-hearted interlude before the drama that opens the finale – one of the disc changes means that the closing bars of this movement are lost. In the finale Vaughan Williams focuses more on the alla marcia element rather than the maestoso it accompanies, so forward movement is again very apparent. Again, one of the disc changes happens through successive climaxes before the last one is crowned by the cathartic stroke on the tam-tam (the recording restarts seconds before this) after which the music sinks down toward the closing epilogue and a revisiting of the work’s opening atmosphere. This is a section that was most subject to the composer’s revisionary knife but again hearing this performance and the way Vaughan Williams allows the music to flow forward towards and into this epilogue makes one realise that pausing to “admire the view” does impede that transition which is so effectively achieved here. The epilogue is again notable for the lyrical flow and sense of repose. Overall, the LSO play well – when I reviewed Vol.2 of this series I noted the exceptional quality of the Boston SO’s performance of Job from much the same time. Perhaps the LSO are not quite up to that level although it must be noted that the audio quality here is considerably more compromised than the Boston recording. At the start of each new disc the ear does notice a difference – some have a “swish”, some seem to suffer from distortion more than others. But that said, the ear quickly adjusts and indeed Lani Spahr has done a superb job ‘matching’ the different discs and sections. I have to say I have found this performance to be little short of revelatory, utterly compelling and wholly convincing. To the point that any admirer or interpreter of this great piece should hear this version.

Much the same can be said of the wartime premiere of Symphony No.5 in D major. Of course it is hard for modern listeners to distance themselves from the context nearly eighty years after the event and not to load this performance with extra emotional significance. On June 24th 1943 when this work was premiered World War II was at its height with the Nazis still in the ascendancy and their invasion of the Soviet Union seemingly succeeding. Sir Henry Wood was due to have conducted the premiere but he was unwell and so Vaughan Williams took over. The London Philharmonic performs here, and as before the playing is pretty good. As an aside, 1943 was the year Malcolm Arnold took over the principal trumpet chair in the orchestra – I wonder if he is present here? Especially impressive are the two outer movements. Again, Vaughan Williams’ sense of inner pulse is unerring – in no way rushed but with a feeling of forward flow that is absolutely perfect. He does not make the mistake some interpreters do of confusing weight of expression with heavy tempi. The musical links between the instrumental symphony and his opera The Pilgrim’s Progress are now very well-known but the pacing of this opening movement up to the crowning “Alleluias” makes for a genuinely moving experience. Perhaps the episodic/pictorial nature of A London Symphony is more forgiving of the stop/start recording – certainly I found the breaks in Symphony No.5 more distracting because they literally disrupt the symphonic flow but such is the strength of the composer’s interpretative vision and the engagement of the players that I still consider this a price worth paying to hear a performance of this stature. The sonic limitations impact most on the pair of central movements. Too much of the gossamer string writing in the Presto misterioso scherzo simply disappears into the background noise of the broadcast and recording. Likewise, the rich and soothing balm of the following Romanza is soured by the actual recording and is disfigured by substantial omissions during disc changes. But in both instances the composer’s profoundly sensitive and musically wise readings shine through. The closing Passacaglia is likewise deeply moving in its fundamental simplicity. The liner references how Vaughan Williams as conductor; “seemed to be doing very little but somehow inspired playing of extraordinary eloquence and commitment”. That is exactly my impression here and the applause retained on this recording would seem to indicate that the Proms audience that memorable night felt the same way.

As mentioned before, the second CD in this set is a re-release of SOMMCD 071 that was first available in 2007. However, the performance of Symphony No.5 in D major from 1952 uses new source material and the 1936 studio recording of Dona Nobis Pacem has been re-mastered for this release. I have not heard the earlier disc so cannot compare the two versions in technical terms. By the time of this second Proms performance Vaughan Williams was just a month shy of his eightieth birthday – the Proms season that year would mark that momentous milestone by including all six of his symphonies. Few could possibly believe there would be three more to come. According to Alan Sanders’ liner note this performance has been described as “the best recorded performance of any Vaughan Williams symphony” with Sanders noting its “unique qualities of concentration, eloquence and beauty...”. Actually one of the things I found most remarkable is how consistently similar it is to the premiere nearly a decade earlier. Again this transfer has been made from off-air acetate recordings. One advantage was that the person responsible for this was Eric Spain who had constructed a machine that could record direct to long playing acetate blanks thereby avoiding the breaks that impact the earlier recordings. Certainly the sound of the orchestra is fuller, with the strings especially gaining an extra sheen. Whether this is in part due to the orchestra being in better shape or the better recording technology I am not sure. There is still a persistent “swish” on the recording that seems to sit frequency-wise in the middle of the instrumental range so that does have the effect of obscuring some significant detail. But once again the sheer coherence and unmannered strength of the composer as conductor’s vision shines through. By all accounts Vaughan Williams was never pedantic with other interpreters regarding exactly how a work should be performed or the tempi that should be deployed. That being the case it should come as no surprise when comparing the two performances that there are passing differences of speed or phrasing. My feeling is that he understood the importance of the living ‘moment’ superseding micro-management as long as the motivation behind the music was being served. This is why these live performances by the composer are so compelling – because they sound both spontaneous and wholly sincere.

This is certainly my reaction to the 1936 recording of Dona Nobis Pacem. This work deserves to be considered one of Vaughan Williams’ choral masterpieces and the performance here – given just a month after the world premiere which featured the same soloists – blazes with that same sincerity and directness of utterance. Sanders notes that this is one of the few pre-war music recordings by the BBC that has survived. The gratitude in its survival must be tempered by regretting so much that has been lost. For it is very noticeable that by some margin this recording – a good seven years older than anything else in this set – is significantly better technically than the others despite the best efforts of Eric Spain or Kenneth Leech. Indeed the overall balance between soloists, choir and orchestra is consistently well managed and even the biggest climaxes which do become somewhat congested do not distort or overload as much as one might have expected them to do.

The work itself with its prayer for peace in the face of conflict is still as sharply relevant today as it was in the mid 1930’s. Unusually for the time, Vaughan Williams created his text by anthologising biblical excerpts, with prayers and poetry. Arthur Bliss was one of the first to create such anthology/choral works with his Pastoral and the ever-powerful Morning Heroes but here Vaughan Williams created one of the most successful fusions of religious and non-religious texts with an anti-war message. I was repeatedly struck when listening to this performance how powerfully this music communicates. Right at the beginning of the work soprano Renée Flynn makes an immediate impact with her light but focussed voice crying for peace. Hers is a surprisingly modern sounding voice without the plumminess that often ‘dates’ soloists of this period. Her voice cuts through but there is an emotional fragility in her pleas that is wholly compelling. Flynn appears to have made little wider impact but in her homeland of Ireland she was one of the biggest singing stars on the wireless - see article. Certainly on the strength of her contribution here her popularity is wholly understandable. In September 1936 Vaughan Williams wrote to a Mr A. Wynn at the BBC:

Dear Sir, I should be glad to conduct “Dona Nobis Pacem” on Nov 13th provided:
- I have a full orchestra (with sufficient strings including your best players)
- I am allowed sufficient time for rehearsal (The work plays about 40 minutes)

As regards soloists – Mr Roy Henderson will be excellent – As regards Miss Renée Flynn I cannot remember ever having heard her sing – the type of voice required is like Mrs Baillie or Miss May Blyth capable of clear pp tone on high notes.

Yours faithfully
R Vaughan Williams

On October 10th another letter followed:

Dear Mr Wynn

If you are still thinking of doing “Dona Nobis” on Nov 13th I should like to recommend Miss RENÉE FLYNN if it is not too late – I have now heard her sing the soprano solo & she was very good. I should be glad to hear in answer to my letter if you wish me to conduct under the conditions which I set forth in that letter.

Yrs sincerely
R Vaughan Williams

Baritone Roy Henderson is a much more familiar name and voice – he would be one of the original sixteen soloists in Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music a couple of years later. His singing of the famous The Angel of Death has been abroad.... passage has a dignified sombre power that is both moving and impressive. The closing movement seems to aim for an optimistic future; “Nation shall not lift up a sword against nation...” – a sentiment to be cruelly destroyed less than three years after the premiere. But Vaughan Williams tempers this potentially rose-tinted conclusion by leaving the very final words to the soprano still quietly imploring for peace. The emotional ambiguity of this ending still resonates to this day. It is worth reiterating the quality of the singing and playing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. This is complex and demanding writing which at the time would be by definition unfamiliar as well. How well and with as much detail as can be heard here it is performed is a great credit to all involved. Over the years this work has hardly been over-recorded but in turn I am not sure it has ever been badly recorded. In a small and competitive field this performance demands to be heard and not just because it is the composer on the podium.

This 150th Anniversary year has been well-served by a wide range of recordings old and new of Vaughan Williams’ enduringly impressive music. These three volumes of archive recordings from SOMM have proved to be a significant and enjoyable contribution to the celebrations. But the opportunities to hear the other two conductors – Sargent and Boult - performing Vaughan Williams are frequent. So small is the composer’s own conducting legacy that it is hard not to consider this third volume the first amongst equals. Especially with the two performances on the first CD – missing music not withstanding – proving to be a pair of the most remarkable interpretations of these symphonies I have ever heard. SOMM’s presentation is again exemplary – several essays on different aspects of the works, performances and recording techniques allied with full sung texts and details of the ‘missing’ sections. Lani Spahr’s audio restorations are the best combination of technical skill and musical/artistic acumen. From the booklet cover Vaughan Williams with his pet cat Foxy beams benevolently over the project. Wonderful stuff.

Nick Barnard

Published: November 24, 2022