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Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Symphony No 6 in E minor (1944-47, rev 1950)
English Folk Songs (1912)
Symphony No 8 in D minor (1953-56)
England, my England (1941)
Roderick Williams (baritone)
BBC Symphony Chorus & Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
rec. 2019/21
Texts included
HYPERION CDA68396 [74]

As the actual 150th anniversary of Vaughan Williams’ birth approaches on October 12th approaches, the fifth volume of Martyn Brabbins’ symphony cycle has arrived. I see from Hyperion’s very latest “coming soon” email that Symphonies 7 and 9 are listed so hopefully in time to complete the survey in time before the end of this celebratory year. So far I have to say that I have enjoyed this cycle a lot. The same concept of combining the symphonies with unusual and interesting ‘fillers’, the same creative team of conductor, orchestra and producer and [mainly] the same recording venue of the Watford Colosseum has seen commendable continuity across the cycle since the first sessions in October 2017. I see from the recording information that the vocal works included on this disc were recorded at the same sessions as the earlier Symphony No 5. One change is that for the two symphonies here for the first time in this cycle Simon Eadon is not the engineer with his place taken by David Rowell.

The disc opens with an impressive performance of Symphony No 6 in E minor. The work created a stir with its first performance on April 21st 1948 and – unusually for a ‘new’ piece – had been recorded twice within a year. Also, just to dismiss the idea that this is music that only speaks to a narrow British audience the very first recording was by Stokowski in America and Toscanini expressed serious interest whilst Boult conducted early performances in Italy and France. Since those first recordings, this symphony has featured on disc many times and in all fairness I cannot think of a single ‘bad’ performance even though the range of interpretations is wide. One of the most fascinating – albeit quite niche – books on Vaughan Williams published this year is Nigel Simeone’s excellent “Ralph Vaughan Williams and Adrian Boult” [pub. Boydell Press]. This lays out in loving and exemplary detail the wealth of correspondence between composer and conductor in relation to performances and recordings of the former’s works. Boult premiered the Symphony No 6 as well as giving the pre-premiere run-through (all with the BBC SO) and also made three commercial recordings. For the listener the to-and-fro of ideas underlines the fact that there can be no absolutes with performances of great music – the composer changes his mind on a multitude of details, the conductor’s conception of the work alters often radically and that is before the listener’s mood is factored in!

Brabbins follows quite closely the score’s printed tempo markings – these were specifically suggested by Boult as the composer’s original markings were impractically fast. Robert Matthew-Walker provides the really interesting liner note for this release. He goes beyond the simple factual information detailing the work’s genesis and form to suggest a couple of reasons why the work has had such an enduring impact. Matthew-Walker proposes that the symphonies preceding No 6 can be characterised as having a single ‘mood’ from No.2’s pictorialism to No 5’s pacifism for example. Aside from the sheer aggression and unease of No 6’s opening he suggests that its unsettling nature is due to the fact that it encompasses several moods from aggression to bucolic good humour to the unique nihilism of the closing finale-epilogue. The challenge for the interpreter is to cohere these very different elements into a logical whole. In this I think Brabbins in very successful. Of course the days are long gone when orchestras are overly challenged by the technical and musical complexities of the work. Compare Boult’s LSO in 1948 hanging onto the coat-tails of Boult who completely ignores his own crochet/quarter note =100(!) in comparison to the polished BBC SO here for Brabbins. There is a certain kind of musical-theatre to the older recording’s sense of teetering on collapse that makes that version still hugely compelling but interesting to note that Boult in all three versions proved even more searching in the Epilogue with testingly slower tempi than Brabbins. None more so than in his 1950’s Decca remake which stretches this movement to a breath-holding 13:17 as compared to Brabbins’ 10:34. In fact few conductors seem willing to ‘risk’ the stasis such a slow tempo can result in. Abravanel’s well respected Utah performance on Vanguard is one of the few to come close to Boult/Decca with 12:53 – the shame there is that the Vanguard engineers turned the recording volume up. Of course the Boult/Decca performance was a unique and very special occurrence that happened to also be a recording – the composer was present and his spoken remarks to the orchestra thanking them for the focus and concentration required to record the movement and indeed the whole work marks it out as such.

The technical ease with the actual playing of the notes and rhythms allows Brabbins to point the contrasts between the jagged angularity of some of the passages and moments when the mood relaxes and almost allows a swinging good humour. For the first time in his symphonies Vaughan Williams adds a tenor saxophone which galumphs along in this recording with exactly the sly good humour I am sure the composer wanted. Simeone in his book notes a terse exchange between composer and publisher when the latter (with an eye on performing practicalities) had queried if it were possible to mark the saxophone as alternately playable on the bass clarinet. I love Vaughan Williams’ reply; “as regards the saxophone – it is essential to the work. I am tired of boiling down my work so it can be played by two banjos and a harmonium.... if they cannot run to a saxophone I fear they cannot do the symphony.” The performance here fully vindicates the composer’s insistence. The aptness of Boult’s tempo indication for this movement is proved by the seamless transition into the serene string led theme beautifully played cantabile here by the BBC SO violins. The skill in the writing is how such strongly contrasted musical material uses essentially the same basic pulse albeit with different groupings and phrasings. I have heard these passages played with greater bite and accentuation than here but the benefit is the sense of continuity. So that when the great tranquillo melody is reached [around 6:15] with the tempo relaxing there is a genuine sense of arrival whereas in some performances it can feel that this is at odds with the preceding material. Where Brabbins succeeds here is by not over-emoting this theme with mannered phrasing or musical point making – the simple beauty of the playing is enough. After one last convulsion the music transitions without a break into the second movement Moderato. Here is a case where Vaughan Williams’ indicated tempo of crochet/quarter note = 72 ‘feels’ fast for the weary tread of the music. Indeed Brabbins is a good few notches slower than that and still the music flows forward. Boult/Decca is nearly a minute slower than Brabbins – 10:16 compared to 9:21. Either is preferable to Elder’s lightweight vision [7:56] that sees his basic pulse over 80 which to my ear robs the music of the sense of inevitable implacable build to this movement’s shattering climax. Before that the icily calm string playing is again notable and a precursor to the finale. Again my sense is that Brabbins has found a judicious middle ground for his tempi – and I do not mean that in any derogatory way – that allows the different facets of the music to register well. David Rowell’s engineering supports this by allowing the nuance and detail of the scores to come through but with no sense of synthetic spotlighting or dynamic manipulation.

The Scherzo is also played attacca with Brabbins again very close to the tempo marking of crochet = 120-128. Boult’s first recording is all but identical timing wise to Brabbins 6:12 to 6:14 and to my ear that does seem to be just about ideal. Having been too fast in the opening movements here Elder is too slow but then the same could be said about Boult/Decca at 6:44 and 7:01 (clearly Boult was happy with this slower tempo as his EMI remake still clocks in at 6:59). This is one of Vaughan Williams’ most unrelenting movements – the basic unitary pulse never wavers, is never moderated even when the dynamic may briefly diminish or the note values increase to give an aural sense of slowing. In one sense this is a straightforward movement as a metronomic beat allows the composer to weave a textually and rhythmically complex web of music around it. This is where this recording works very well – following the score every detail and instrumental colour registers very well and the energy never flags. The music again transitions without a break – worth noting this is the only Vaughan Williams symphony played without a break – into the still-remarkable epilogue. In the liner Matthew-Walker uses the phrase; “... the music suddenly recedes, leaving a solitary bass clarinet to fall and part the curtain to the epilogue.” Indeed the sense of entering into a previously unseen world beyond is deeply evocative. Engineers and producers as much as orchestras have struggled with keeping this music as quiet and sustained as the score demands. But then again the score indicates crochet/quarter = 56 which no conductor follows. As mentioned Boult/Decca is remarkably concentrated – I have not heard the recent Pristine remastering to hear how the technical recoding has been improved. Astonishingly Rozhdestvensky in his live cycle in Russia starts the movement with a quaver/8th note = 60(ish) so nearly twice as slow as the printed indication. Along the way the sempre pp e senza crescendo rather goes out the window but it is certainly a challenging and indeed compelling performance. But returning to Brabbins, this is a very good version well played and well engineered. The ending of this very special work is well achieved. Matthew-Walker points out that the harmonic ambiguity that has run through the entire work continues to the closing bars. Perhaps the curtain has now closed but the music has not finished. If I have written at length about this version of Symphony No 6 it is because I consider it one of the composer’s very finest works.

For me the main companion work on this disc the Symphony No 8 in D minor is a significantly lesser score albeit a superbly crafted one. Again, Robert Matthew-Walker contributes a really interesting liner note which offers several insights into the work that are novel and interesting. In many ways this symphony is the composer at his most absolute. There do not appear to be the emotional undercurrents or subtexts that arguably are present in all his other symphonies to this point. Vaughan Williams could be perceived as being in a kind of musical toyshop relishing the opportunity to ‘play’ with any number of instrumental and timbral combinations. Famously his amanuensis Roy Douglas was rather daunted by the composer’s insistence on using multiple gongs and all available ‘phones and ‘spiels. This superficial ‘novelty’ has rather obscured the fact – as Matthew-Walker points out – that the musical material of this work is rigorously derived from the simple 4 note cell that opens the work. In many ways this is the least emotionally engaged symphony Vaughan Williams wrote but for someone in their eighties it shows astonishing originality and unerring control of the material.

This performance by Martin Brabbins and the BBC SO is the equal of any recent performance I have heard. In part this is due to the sophistication and clarity of the recording which allows so many of the attractive details of the score to register. But also Brabbins is very good at allowing the music to unfold in an unforced and good-natured way. The second movement for wind and brass alone is especially bucolic but then the third movement for strings is beautifully lyrical and sustained without sounding at all forced. Personally, I have never particularly enjoyed the final movement with its over indulgence in the aforementioned spiels and phones. To my ear these sound applied from the outside onto the score simply for sonic effect. You could eliminate them all and the musical content of the movement would be unchanged. But that said this performance and recording makes as good a case for this movement as any I have heard and I know many people place this symphony high up the list of their favourite Vaughan Williams works.

One of the features of this Hyperion cycle has been the inclusion of rare and unusual music as the fillers. Andrew Manze’s recent cycle with the RLPO has followed the tried and tested path of popular and familiar couplings but I have to say a major part of the attraction for me of the Hyperion recordings has been the inclusion of unknown works. With some of the earlier releases these couplings had a connection to the main works. Not so with this current disc. To be honest, these are the slightest “fillers” in the series to date and I cannot imagine anyone buying this disc on the strength of those pieces. Between the symphonies are placed three arrangements of folksongs conjecturally dated to 1912. According to the liner these performances may; “represent the first time these arrangements have ever been heard”. The motivation of creating eminently singable versions for amateur choirs is commendable. In truth these are very basic arrangements for strings and unison mixed choir (the third song adds some minimal timpani writing). The liner lists this as being in an edition by Martin Brabbins but exactly what that means is not clear. Vaughan Williams wrote some tremendous folksong arrangements – these are not at that level. I am glad to have heard these but I doubt I will return to them often if ever. Likewise England my England that closes the disc. As an example of the composer being aware of his responsibility as a creator of public and National Art it is actually rather powerful. Written in 1941 for a BBC broadcast this was a simple morale-booster for a country in its darkest-hour. As such it is commendably stirring and receives as good a performance as it possibly could. Baritone Roderick Williams has the style and the voice off to a tee and is backed up by a fervent BBC SO Chorus. I am sure I could hear an organ underpinning the final ardent-eyed peroration but no player is so listed so clearly I just wanted there to be an organ too! Matthew-Walker wisely notes that while the mood and relevance of this type of piece may have long passed, there remains a worth and integrity in Vaughan Williams’ writing that transcends time or place.

This cycle of the Vaughan Williams symphonies goes from strength to strength. Collectors who have already purchased earlier volumes can do so again with confidence. Everything about this Hyperion release is admirable right down to the powerfully brooding “Rainstorm over the sea” by John Constable as the booklet image. The final release is eagerly awaited.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: John Quinn

Published: November 2, 2022

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