Vaughan Williams's Fifth Symphony
survey of some recent recordings
by William Hedley
I wrote a survey of recordings of Vaughan Williams’s Fifth Symphony for the October 2001 issue of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society Journal
and then republished
on MusicWeb International. Listening to and reporting on all those performances of
this gloriously life-affirming symphony under the direction of so many great conductors was a labour of love. Many new performances have appeared in the intervening years, and though I have not been able to hear them all I hope the following notes will be of interest to collectors. Much of what follows has already appeared elsewhere, which fact will be betrayed by the occasional repetition or cross-reference. I have also not hesitated to call upon others where I needed help and/or support!
Vaughan Williams/London Philharmonic Orchestra, 1952 (Somm)
I first read The Orchestra Speaks, first published in 1938, when I was at school. Its author, Bernard Shore, was principal viola of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It is a study of the most eminent conductors of the day, as viewed from the seat of a member of the orchestra. In a chapter entitled ‘Modern Music’, Shore discusses composers who also conduct. He has a few things to say about Ralph Vaughan Williams. He was, first of all, ‘a delight to any English orchestra.’ As for technique, ‘His stick is clear enough for his needs, and though he may not give the impression of effortless ease in his movements and gestures … there is a grand solidity and structure about any performance he is directing.’ Above all, according to Shore, the composer’s modesty and humility endeared him to orchestras – ‘he cannot ever take himself at his full worth’ – and encouraged them to give of their best. This composer-conducted performance of the Fifth is described on the back of the CD as: ‘Recorded off the air during a Prom Concert given at the Royal Albert Hall on 3rd September 1952.’ Vaughan Williams’s incandescent recorded performance of his own Fourth Symphony is rightly viewed as one of the finest available, and this performance, too, is a precious, even indispensable document. The performance flows at a natural pace, with no exaggeration. The composer avoids any suggestion of lingering in the Romanza, where he takes a full two minutes less than some more recent interpreters. The work is well played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the sound – CD mastering by Gary Moore – is as good as, perhaps even better, than one would expect given its age and sources.
Alexander Gibson/Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, 1982 (EMI Classics)
When I wrote the original article, I was unable to locate a copy of Sir Alexander Gibson’s performance of the Fifth. It was then reissued on a double album in the EMI Classics British Composers series, in a varied and satisfying programme that includes Paavo Berglund’s superb performance of the Fourth Symphony. Gibson’s Fifth is something of a dark horse in the symphony’s discography. It is very well played and beautifully recorded. It is quite a dramatic reading, with few signs of self-indulgence on the conductor’s part. If this sounds clinical the result is anything but, with most of Gibson’s interpretive decisions sounding spontaneous and right, though not everyone will appreciate the dramatic pauses he introduces on a couple of occasions to underline key moments. The Romanza is deeply felt at a fairly slow basic tempo, and the finale progresses from genial good nature to serene transcendence in a most satisfactory manner. Jeffrey Davis wrote about this performance in the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society Journal. ‘Although largely unsung in its day, I regard it as one of the finest recordings of the Fifth, with an especially deeply felt and spiritually uplifting slow movement. The horn calls in the last movement are taken faster than usual, but it works, to very moving effect, in Gibson’s overall conception. Gibson, like Berglund, was an eloquent champion of Sibelius and I was often reminded of the great Finn’s Sixth Symphony while listening to this recording. Vaughan Williams’s Fifth is, after all, dedicated “without permission” to Sibelius.’ I agree with every word.
Gennady Rozhdestvensky/USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra, 1988 (Melodiya)
This performance is part of a complete cycle of Vaughan Williams symphonies recorded live in Leningrad (review). The set caught many of the Vaughan Williams fraternity unawares. There are a few minor mishaps, plus a couple of unfortunate howlers. Audience noise is acceptable, and applause is retained. The Leningrad public seem to have enjoyed themselves. I wrote about Rozhdestvensky’s Fifth recorded in London in 1980, a performance I enjoyed and still enjoy, in my earlier article. Ethereal playing from the Leningrad violins sets the scene for a particularly pensive first movement. Rozhdestvensky sets a measured basic tempo which fluctuates as the will takes him. The pianissimo playing from the strings in the faster, central section is outstanding, but they needed a bit more help from their conductor to maintain perfect ensemble in this tricky passage. The build-up to the movement’s main climax is superb, and Rozhdestvensky pulls no punches. The coda is resigned, even rather pastoral, rather than bleak. The second movement is again on the slow side, a country dance rather than the composer’s Presto mysterioso. I find it effective and convincing. The opening chords of the Bunyan-inspired slow movement are rapt and perfectly balanced. Rozhdestvensky does not linger where it would be easy to over-indulge, which is fine by me. If the finale had been of the same standard this would have qualified as a great performance, but Rozhdestvensky is less successful than he was in 1980 at capturing the smile in the music at the outset. The central section of the movement is very slow indeed, with a gradual acceleration towards the main climax which is not ineffective, but will upset Vaughan Williams purists. The unforgettable final pages are sensitively done, but a moment of inattention from the principal cellist at the beginning of the passage produces an F sharp where an F natural is required (and against an F natural in the first violins!) What’s one wrong note in a 45-minute symphony? Nothing much, I suppose, but it is horribly audible and couldn’t occur at a worse moment. The work proceeds to a radiant, well-managed close thereafter, but on repeated listening we wait with gritted teeth for this unfortunate event.
Robert Spano/Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, 2006 (Telarc)
This performance is superbly well played and recorded, though some may find a certain sheen to the strings almost approaching hardness. I wonder, though, if this wasn’t also a reaction on my part to the performance as well. One has the impression that the conductor is concerned to avoid any accusation of pastoral meandering in the work. The result is that the faster passages tend to work better than the rest. The most successful movement is the scherzo, at least as far as the gorgeous string passage just before the end which lacks the tenderness and yearning other conductors have found. The opening of the finale is just right, the tempo perfectly judged and the music smiling and slightly boisterous, a delightful effect. Later in the movement, however, the conductor seems unwilling to relax, and the louder, faster passages are forceful indeed, so that the Epilogue seems like something tagged on, not at all the natural culmination of the piece, beautifully played though it is. There is a nervousness in the pulse at the opening of the symphony which creates a restless atmosphere which seems at odds with the composer’s intentions. The middle section of this first movement is rapid and strong but calm does not return with the opening music as we expect it to. This is perhaps a valid view, as this music leads, after all, to the main climax of the movement. Whether it will convince Vaughan Williams enthusiasts is another question, which we might also ask in respect of some massive holding back at climactic points in the following passage. There are some strange changes of tempo and variations of pulse in the Romanza too, and the conductor’s decision when the main theme appears for the second time to ask his unison string players to play forte (at least) when the marking is pianissimo seems perverse. Either way I don’t hear the purity and devotion so typical of Bunyan and Vaughan Williams here.
Martin Yates/Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, 2011 (Dutton Epoch)
Martin Yates’s performance was announced as Vaughan Williams’s Fifth Symphony, in a ‘New Edition’. Oxford University Press was engaged in a major overhaul of its Vaughan Williams publications, cleaning them up and correcting errors in the scores and performing material, and the Fifth was one of the first works to receive this treatment. Differences are minor, and most listeners will not notice them. I discuss in my original article the copyist’s error in the slow movement where the timpani are placed a bar adrift from the rest of the orchestra. I am still not convinced about this, though admit to being in a minority of one. However, here it is, the correction installed into the new score and, from now on, authentic. Peter Horton was responsible for this new edition, and though he discusses this point in his excellent booklet note, he makes little reference to other modifications or corrections.
The performance is very fine, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra on excellent form. The first movement feels quite measured, though timings reveal nothing exceptional. There is a certain coolness about the playing. The climax of the movement is superbly handled, however, and the coda is properly uneasy: there is more to this symphony than radiant tranquillity. I am delighted that Yates allows his string players time to breathe in the beautiful passage just before the final coda of the scherzo. If that final coda isn’t quite ‘clean’, and if there are suspicions about some of the running quavers in the middle section of the first movement, these are unimportant blemishes. The Romanza is as passionate and richly euphonious as you are likely to hear, and the return of the symphony’s opening music shortly before the end is most convincingly handled. I hear less of the stamp of a strong individual personality, such as those of Haitink or Sir Roger Norrington. Other listeners will think that an advantage, and they might be right.
Mark Elder/Hallé Orchestra, 2011 (Hallé)
Mark Elder’s recorded cycle of Vaughan Williams symphonies is now complete. I have not heard his reading of the Fifth for some considerable time and, for some reason, can no longer find it on my shelves. If, by any reason, if I lent it to you and you are reading this, I’ll have it back please! In the meantime, my impression of the performance, favourable but sadly and inevitably lacking in detail, will be supplemented by those of other listeners. In a joint review with Carlos Kalmar’s performance in The Gramophone, Rob Cowan found Elder’s the more satisfying, reserving particular praise for the Romanza, as well as the difficult moment – for the conductor – when the opening material returns in the finale, just before the glowing closing passage. Robin Barber, one of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society’s founder-members, writing in the Society’s Journal, had this to say: ‘The Fifth is largely a live recording from a 2011 concert at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, with some material patched from a rehearsal; no matter, the end result is seamless and with no audience intrusion that I could hear. The warm acoustic is slightly recessed, but if you turn the volume up it really glows. The symphony has a natural forward momentum and Elder’s unhurried approach is ideal for the unfolding of this radiant and numinous music. Possibly to my ear there could be a greater tension at the climax of the third movement, for this is the emotional centre of the symphony and when resolved we know we have crossed to the other side. There is superb playing from the orchestra in all departments and at the ethereal ending there is that wonderful sense of homecoming and peace that make this one of the greatest of twentieth-century symphonies.’
Carlo Kalmar/Oregon Symphony Orchestra, 2012 (Pentatone)
This performance is part of a disc entitled ‘This England’. The programme gets off to a splendid start with a cracking performance of Elgar’s Overture, Cockaigne, and the ‘Sea Interludes’ from Britten’s Peter Grimes are also superbly done. The first movement of the Fifth unfolds with a calm inevitability that is very attractive, though not without a fair amount of intervention from the conductor, who holds back expressively at several key points. This sounds more spontaneous to my ears than do similar effects under certain other conductors, except for the climax of the movement – which Vaughan Williams marks Tutta forza – where Kalmar takes a little liberty with the pulse that might well pall after a time. He whips up a veritable storm in the central passage, however, and the grim coda is properly affecting. The scherzo is superb, with featherlight strings and a very winning way with those disorientating misplaced accents. The Romanza, too, is very fine, particularly successful at evoking that very special mood that words will always be inadequate to describe. The opening tempo of the finale is quite quick, underlining its relaxed, smiling nature. There is more violence than usual in the build-up to the return of the opening music. The final pages are very slow, but beautifully sustained, bringing a very fine performance of this glorious work to a serene and satisfying close.
Andrew Manze/Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, 2017 (Onyx)
Andrew Manze’s tempo at the opening of the symphony ensures that the first movement does not linger. The music unfolds steadily and patiently. The dynamic range is wide, so you need to set the volume control a little beyond normal in order to hear the quieter details of the scoring. Vaughan Williams was more sparing than many composers – Elgar, for instance – with interpretative indications, leaving some measure of freedom to the interpreter. Here, you may like or you may not the odd moment when the conductor presses ahead – or the opposite – without waiting for the composer’s sanction, but there is nothing to shock. All the same, there seems little sense of expectancy when the orchestra begins to prepare us for the big Tutta forza passage, where I find that some of the conductor’s expressive devices sound studied rather than spontaneous. The faster, central passage is superbly played but the climax seems less hard won than in other interpretations, lacking a little impact. The scherzo comes off very well, and Manze, unlike many conductors, encourages his players to considerable expressiveness in the lovely string passage just before the coda. The Romanza is beautifully done, and the finale is also very successful, properly smiling at the outset and radiantly conclusive at the close.
Michael Collins/Philharmonia Orchestra, 2019 (BIS)
The first thing that struck me about Michael Collins’s performance of the Fifth Symphony was that the opening horn calls were too loud. But the idea, explored in the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society Journal, that they were intended to evoke wartime air raid sirens, can be used to justify such an approach. The main tempo for this first movement is a fair bit slower than the crotchet = 80 marked in the score, but I like it, and Collins is certainly not the only conductor to balk at that tempo indication. A nice feeling of calm is established, and on the third page the horn calls, now muted, are nicely contrasted with the opening. There is an appropriate sense of mystery in the passage leading into the faster middle section, and the winds, quite heavily accented, provide menace throughout the passage. The temperature rises very satisfyingly, after which the return of the opening theme is well handled. When we come to the Tutta forza presentation of the second theme Collins suddenly pulls back the tempo, as if he wants to underline the effect. Sudden pauses, hesitations, and one dramatic stab at the brakes give the impression that the conductor doesn’t quite trust the music to do the job on its own. The close of the movement can sound bleak in some hands, though here it sounds sadly matter of fact.
The tempo of the second movement is just right, and Collins makes sure that the texture favours the winds rather than the strings. There are quite a few fortissimo markings in this movement – more than you might expect in something we often think of as a kind of nocturne – and Collins does not hesitate to make the most of them. Rasping trombones – marked only forte – rather cross the line of good taste. The lovely string passage a minute or so before the end is played here with more expressiveness than is often the case, and so pleases this listener!
The Romanza is beautifully played from all concerned, but there are a number of rather abrupt changes of tempo and of mood. These expressive points do not always sound spontaneous. The three-fold farewell at the end of the movement is beautifully done. This is serious, even solemn music, but it is not sombre; even so, the sun should come out at the beginning of the finale. It is all fairly straightforward here, almost non-committal, and I certainly don’t hear much sense of fun in the first paragraph of this movement. The passage preceding and preparing for the return of the music from the opening of the symphony is extremely dramatic, and the glorious coda is beautifully played, though you might well wish that greater attention had been paid to the pp and ppp markings. This is perhaps a performance to please those who hear the work as a response to conflict rather than as a calm oasis in wartime. Despite a few doubts I enjoy this performance rather more than one or two other reviewers.
Martyn Brabbins/BBC Symphony Orchestra, 2019 (Hyperion)
This performance from Martyn Brabbins was recorded only four months after that by Michael Collins. Brabbins, like Collins, adopts a basic tempo for the first movement that is slower than Vaughan Williams’s marking. He creates a greater sense of calm, however. The strings employ a varied palette of colour throughout the opening paragraph, a quality also much in evidence in the deliciously wispy playing in the faster, middle section. The lead-in to this passage is masterly, beginning early and reaching a particularly passionate climax, the two-note descending motif ominous and threatening but with no exaggerated violence. The return to the opening music is perfectly managed, and the climax of the movement is given smoothly and pause-free, making it all the more passionate and rapturous. At the end of the movement, those repeated oboe and cor anglais F’s – expressionless: the notes sound almost dead – as well as the final discord, cellos and violas on adjacent notes, are surely meant to be disquieting. Some interpreters make these final bars amongst the most desolate Vaughan Williams wrote. Brabbins comes quite close.
This performance of the scherzo makes much of the inventiveness of Vaughan Williams’s scoring. As the movement progresses, I particularly like the way Brabbins does not neglect fortissimo markings yet manages to avoid overdoing them. Textures throughout are exceptionally clear, and you won’t hear violins scurrying more proficiently than these. There then follows one of the most beautiful readings of the Romanza I have ever heard, to the point that critical faculties are all but suspended when listening to it. The strings produce a gorgeous sound, and the wind players are marvellously characterful. I particularly appreciate the tone and technique of Maxwell Spiers’s cor anglais. Only at one point did I wish Brabbins had moved the music forward a little more, but otherwise, and by superb control of phrasing and dynamics within a slow overall tempo, the team produces a hugely passionate climax and an intensely moving coda. There is a rare feeling of grandeur about this reading.
The opening of the finale has just the carefree, open-air quality that I hope for. The little, rather jazzy exchanges in the strings less than a minute in, are deliciously playful here, and when the music passes to the second idea the effect is positively jubilant. The middle section of the movement is another matter, and ought perhaps to evoke more unease than it does. But there is always room for another view, and in the event Brabbins steers the music towards an imposing and passionate return of the symphony’s opening material, and a serene coda. A crucial moment for me in this passage is the clarinets’ simple, rising D major scale a minute or so before the end. This is barely audible in the Collins version – curious, that: he will have played this passage himself innumerable times – but it is just right here. This, and other matters of balance, are of course the conductor’s affair, but no doubt the producer, Andrew Keener, had a hand in them too.
Each one of these recorded performances has something of importance to say about Vaughan Williams’s masterpiece. Over the years I have come to believe that only a poor conductor will impose a view that is to the detriment of the work being performed. Each of these interpretations is the result of long and serious study whose aim is to realise the work to its best advantage. Decisions as to the quality of these performances will depend on a number of factors, the conductor’s fidelity to the score, for instance. Are Vaughan Williams’s speeds respected? Does the conductor follow the composer’s dynamic markings? This is crucial, of course, because no conductor is more important than the work being performed. Yet Vaughan Williams himself, as a conductor, did not always follow the score to the letter, allowing, from time to time, the occasional moment of spontaneous interpretation. It is here that, as listeners, we must all judge according to our personal reaction and opinion. Does this sound right? Does it sound like the Vaughan Williams Fifth we would produce ourselves had we the good fortune to find ourselves in front of a magnificent symphony orchestra – leaving aside the question of talent? For this listener the first of these two criteria pales slightly in comparison with the second, to the point that any recommendation I might make here will only be an opinion, a reflection of my own, personal view of this mighty and eternally satisfying work of art. So, with that in mind, I take the plunge. I remain loyal to all my original recommendations, most notably Haitink, Norrington and Bryden Thomson. (And I note that Ronald Grames, in the remarkable Critical Discography he is producing for the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society, is brave enough to place Thomson at the top of his list.) To this trio I am happy to add the most recent, conducted by Martyn Brabbins.
October 12, 2022