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Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Thanksgiving for Victory (A Song of Thanksgiving) (1943)
Serenade to Music (1938)
Job: A Masque for Dancing (1927-30)
BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Boston Symphony Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
rec. 1943/46
Vaughan Williams Live Volume 2

Another valuable and generous contribution to this 150th Anniversary year’s discography are three radio broadcasts – two live, one recorded – that have an historical significance beyond the individual (considerable) merits of the music or the interpretations. Volume 1 in this series featured two symphonies conducted by Malcolm Sargent including his world premiere performance of Symphony No 9. Alongside Sargent there are another three conductors who were pre-eminent in their conducting and promotion of Vaughan Williams’ music; Henry Wood, John Barbirolli and Adrian Boult. All three stand proud in the composer’s discography and musical life but surely Adrian Boult must be considered the first amongst equals, even if only because of the sheer longevity of his involvement with this body of work. Boult first conducted a piece by the composer – Sound Sleep – on May 12, 1910 and last – Sinfonia Antartica – October 12, 1977, a quite staggering sixty-seven years later. The latter was part of Boult’s final concert appearance. Along the way he premiered, promoted, recorded and generally celebrated the work of the composer considered the greatest British living composer for much of that time.

The three recordings preserved here are well-chosen and in their own ways quite unique. The surviving off-air recordings has been restored, remastered and supervised for release by Lani Spahr whose work on similarly technically limited recordings of Elgar and others has been rightly praised. The disc opens with the Thanksgiving for Victory. This was a BBC commission originally mooted by Arthur Bliss in 1943 (in his role as the BBC’s Director of Music) for a work to be ready as/when Nazi Germany was defeated. The convolutions and confusions that arose from this are laid out in fascinating detail in Nigel Simeone’s new book “Ralph Vaughan Williams and Adrian Boult” [pub. Boydell Press] which I referenced (and praised) in my recent review of the latest Brabbins/Hyperion Vaughan Williams Symphonies release. All of the following information is drawn from that book. One interesting detail I did not previously know; the BBC had also had conversations with both Walton and Bax (as Master of the King’s Music) about such a commission. Given Walton’s notorious slowness and Bax’s essential unsuitability to the role of producing ceremonial or ‘national’ music to order the choice of Vaughan Williams was a wise one. For various practical reasons – including not knowing exactly when “Victory” might be declared, the performance on this disc was recorded on November 5, 1944 although not broadcast until May 13 the following year. Apparently right up to the day or recording the actual title of the work was not finalised either with “Victory Cantata” an option – even on the day of the broadcast the announcer called it the “Victory Anthem”. Further crossed wires (and Bliss leaving his role) meant that the draft Vaughan Williams supplied in late 1943 sat in a drawer until a panicking Boult contacted the composer in the Summer of 1944 asking how the score was progressing! The composer wishing to avoid any further ‘mis-understandings’ outlined his performer requirements which make for interesting reading (to quote):
- A soprano with a powerful dramatic voice but no wobble (I should prefer Florence Austral)
- A chorus of about 200 (The BBC professional chorus with their highly individualised voices would be entirely wrong except as part of a larger chorus)
- Chorus of 100 children (NB: no choir boys)
- Full symphony orchestra including 6 trumpets
- A large organ
- A speaker

With the exception of Elsie Suddaby taking the soprano role [no mean singer herself – she was part of the original “Serenade Sixteen” for Henry Wood in 1938 – but more a lyric rather than dramatic soprano perhaps], the resulting recording seems to have followed these strictures closely and Simeone quotes the composer as thinking “it was an excellent recording and came through [on the radio] very well.” As such, consideration of this recording and work as a historical document transcends normal critical evaluation. Vaughan Williams created a work that plays continuously for around quarter of an hour combining bible texts with passages from Shakespeare and Kipling. His great skill is to fashion a work that avoids any sense of tub-thumping or triumphalism. Instead the abiding sense is one of thanksgiving [by the time this work was recorded by Boult in the studio in 1951 the title was finalised as Song of Thanksgiving] and relief. The introduction of the children’s chorus to sing the closing afirmatory “Land of our birth, we pledge to thee..” is a touching piece of musical theatre – all the better for being sung to one of Vaughan Williams’ finest hymn-like melodies. Likewise the hushed reflective final lines “The Lord shall be thine everlasting light, and the days of thy mourning shall be ended” are wholly in line with a composer whose great Dona Nobis Pacem of 1935 was clearly anti war-for-war’s-sake. This studio recording of Thanksgiving for Victory has a unique fervour and power that the 1951 recording comes close to but does not equal. Interestingly I would not call Suddaby’s voice “dramatic” in the intense operatic sense but she does not wobble, her diction is clear and her performance effective. For modern ears the old-testament-prophet-reads-the-news declamation of narrator Valentine Dyall is ..... distracting. One choice the BBC engineers made was to recess the orchestral accompaniment noticeably when the narrator enters which is just about the only misjudgement. Other than that the balances are remarkably good for a radio recording this age – the “large organ” is fairly absent but that apart the performance is compelling and indeed moving. This performance has been available on CD before as part of the Dutton collection entitled “From Vaughan Williams’ attic”. I have not heard that to compare the quality of the transfers and in any case I do not think that collection is still available.

Next is the great Serenade to Music in a performance broadcast by the BBC on September 29th 1946. This significance of this broadcast was that it was part of the launch of the new “Third Programme” on BBC Radio (this became Radio 3 in 1967). Ever practical, Vaughan Williams realised that the original version for 16 top rank solo voices would limit performances. The version here is the adaption for four soloists, chorus and orchestra. This is a successful compromise allowing solo lines to be sung beautifully but at the same time the ‘choral’ sections to have a weight and substance sixteen voices alone cannot match. Worth noting too that for this broadcast three of the four soloists – the exception is tenor Bradbridge White [curiously mis-named on the CD cover as Beveridge White!] – were part of the stellar line-up for the 1938 premiere. Hence soprano Isobel Baillie sings her ravishingly beautiful “of sweet harmony.....” ascending to the high A with sovereign ease. Baritone Harold Williams in contrast gets the musical short-straw being allocated original bass Norman Allin’s line, “..and his affections dark as Erebus...” which sits uncomfortably low for him and in any case disappears into the murk of this broadcast transcription. And therein lies the main issue with this recording.... the recording. By some distance it is technically the least successful of the three offered here. Generally it is murky and orchestral detail is obscured – the many and important violin solos are pretty much inaudible which is a significant loss. As a performance, not unusually for Boult, his live performance is a little faster than his studio versions but the ‘spirit’ is very similar. The radio provenance of this recording is displayed by a back announcement by a BBC continuity announcer but there is no applause.

Interesting and indeed moving though the first two works on this disc are, the revelatory performance by some distance is the 1946 Job – A Masque for Dancing. The revelation is two-fold; a stunningly powerful, dramatic reading by Boult and a performance from one of the USA’s leading ensembles the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Even today, the trope of Vaughan Williams as a parochial composer whose music rarely “travels” well outside of the UK is too often repeated. This performance alone triumphantly dispels any such notion. Simeone points out that Boult conducted this work in Vienna with the Philharmonic (to great praise from Weingartner), with the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and in Chicago. If most of Vaughan Williams’ work was close to Boult’s heart, it could be argued that Job was closest of all. Not only was he the dedicatee of the work but he made four commercial recordings and a further three (including this one) live performances have been released on CD. I do not know Boult’s first studio version made with the BBC SO for HMV just two months after this live performance [another Dutton archive re-release] but I do know the LPO/Decca/1954, LPO/Everest/1959 and LSO/EMI/1970 remakes. In addition I know the live version again by the LPO recorded at the Royal Festival Hall in 1972 as part of the centenary celebrations. In several ways it is the live version that comes closest to this Boston performance.

Nigel Simeone lists this recording as “unpublished” [the curse of discographies that are out of date as soon as they are written!] but he further notes there being wayward pitch issues with the transcription and being “in primitive sound”. That being the case even more praise is due Lani Spahr because even allowing the ear to adjust to distorting climaxes and carrier wave interference the quality and character of this performance shines through. Any pitch issues have been eradicated and indeed instrumental balances are not at all bad. A couple of observations register immediately. The Boston Symphony is in fine collective and individual shape for an ensemble re-establishing itself so soon after the upheaval of War. The strings especially have a weight and unity of tone that is rarely heard in Vaughan Williams but is spectacularly effective. Likewise the uncredited leader’s solos in Elihu’s Dance of Youth and Beauty have a tenderness and simple expressivity that is completely disarming. In contrast – earlier in the work – Boult drives the tempi in Scene 4 – Job’s Dream – which depicts dances of plague, pestilence, famine and death – in a way that makes this music more explicitly nightmarish than I have heard elsewhere. Across the performance, the orchestral climaxes – which do fall prey to some distortion – are crowned by the powerful Boston brass. One little surprise – the hypocritical saxophone of Job’s Comforters is played relatively straight. Perhaps because it was American I assumed the sound might somehow reflect the nationality. Reading Simeone’s description of the soon-to-be BBC SO recording makes me think that several of these characteristics are carried forward into that performance. The range of moods that Boult draws from the work is striking and the orchestra’s seeming total immersion in that expressive span is thrilling to hear. Simeone makes a further intriguing point; he writes that across all the recorded performances Boult is relatively consistent time-wise in a range of 43-46 minutes with the Decca version the “slowest” at 45:42. Remarkably this Boston performance seems the slowest of all – 46:37 (of which roughly 30 seconds is applause and a back announcement) – so 46 minutes of music. My sense is that Boult is pushing the boundaries, the expressive extremes. Perhaps in later years his approach would become more musically elastic and possible even more nuanced but I must admit to being totally swept away by the sheer theatre of this performance.

Credit as usual too to the quality of SOMM’s presentation. Simon Heffer contributes a useful liner, there are all texts in English only and a synopsis for Job. By happy coincidence both this release and Simeone’s book use the same photograph of Boult and Vaughan Williams deep in conversation watched over by the composer’s wife for their respective covers. This was taken at the Decca sessions of the Sea Symphony on January 1, 1954. All in all, a very valuable archive release and important addition to the Boult/Vaughan Williams discography.

Nick Barnard

Performance details
Elsie Suddaby (soprano), Valentine Dyall (narrator), George Thalben-Ball (organ), Choir of the Children of the Thomas Coram Schools, BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus1
rec. 5 November 1943 Corn Exchange Bedford

Isobel Baillie (soprano), Astra Desmond (contralto), Bradbridge White (tenor), Harold Williams (baritone), BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus1
rec. 29 September 1946 Maida Vale Studio 1, London

Boston Symphony Orchestra
rec. 26 January 1946, Symphony Hall, Boston

Published: October 26, 2022

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