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VW symphonies 6 9 PASC673

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Symphony No. 6 in E minor
Symphony No. 9 in E minor
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
rec. 1953/58, Kingsway Hall, London
Ambient Stereo (6)/Stereo (9)

As expected, this fith and final volume in Pristine’s Boult/LPO RVW symphony cycle marks the culmination of their 150th birthday celebrations for the composer. The Sixth Symphony has been expertly remastered from its 1953 mono into Ambient Stereo and the Ninth, originally made in stereo in 1958, has been “XR Remastered” by Andrew Rose. Obviously by far the greater improvement is of the Sixth, as the Everest recording was always very fine, but as with the previous issues in this excellent series, the sound of both has been enhanced, being now richer, deeper and fuller.

The similarities between the two symphonies here are marked – unless, of course, you seek contrast. Written only a decade apart, both are in a dark E minor, are instrumentally explorative and inventive, predominately doom-laden, often dissonant, discordant and chromatic, and conclude on a note of mystery.

The sheer energy and vehemence Boult and the LPO bring to the opening Allegro of the Sixth suggest that they were inspired by the presence of the composer to give of their best and they embrace with the real heart and affection the soaring, strumming pastoral theme of the last section of the movement before the despairing coda (reminiscent of Shostakovich at his most tragic). The prominent brass and concluding, melancholy cor anglais solos are beautifully realised in this recording and Boult’s insistence on pressing forward – an urgency first of which the composer at first disapproved but then accepted and adopted by even changing his own metronome markings – pays dividends in this alternately restless and wistful music. The viciousness and violence return in the short, sardonic Scherzo and the virtuosity of the orchestra comes to the fore and the louche tenor sax solo consolidates the uncertainty and discomfort of the prevailing mood. After so much noisy turmoil, the pp finale – or, to give it its much more apt name, ‘Epilogue’ – presents a challenge to the concentration of both the orchestra and audience, being so “wispy” and diffuse and I am not sure that Boult tones down the volume as completely as Vaughan Williams wished – or perhaps the newly revitalised sound from Pristine paradoxically lends the music more life than the “dead” effect the composer seemed to aiming for – but there is still much delicacy and nuance in the playing. The success of the performers in conveying the emotional ambivalence of the conclusion – somewhat redolent of Job in its hovering between triumph and despair – is acknowledged and praised by the composer himself in his brief speech of thanks on track 5.

As the notes tell us, for various complicated reasons, the Ninth Symphony was recorded for a different label by an entirely different team in another location, but still employing the famous partnership of Boult and the LPO. I reviewed the Everest re-issue of it back in 2014 and I quote here from my comments on Boult’s handling of it, seeing little reason to change my mind:

“The Ninth Symphony was tepidly received by the audience at its premiere by Sir Malcolm Sargent with the Royal Philharmonic and its critical reception was even cool. It was this recording which did most to rehabilitate it in the UK and even popularise it in the United States, where Vaughan Williams was all but unknown. As Sir Adrian Boult says in his brief spoken introduction, its historical importance is enhanced by the fact that the composer died a mere seven hours before the start of the recording sessions.

It remains a bleak, gloom-laden work, difficult for some to appreciate. A previous review aptly characterised it as “brooding and sinister” and I admit to having to work hard to enjoy its grim beauties. Vaughan Williams originally intended it to reflect the plot of Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles and there are also references to his first ‘Sea Symphony’ and echoes of Holst's ‘Egdon Heath’. However, it is more tempting to hear instead it as a pessimistic verdict on humanity by an old man who had recently lived through the worst atrocities of the twentieth century. There are flashes of warmth, nobility and stoic grandeur but for the most part we are closest to the sound-world of Job without the closing consolation, only despair – or, at best, resignation.

The famous utilisation of a trio of saxophones imparts a mood of louche indifference and sneering mockery to the opening movement. The introduction on the flugelhorn to the second movement intensifies the melancholy. In the Scherzo, Satan struts in triumph and the bells in the last movement remind me of Wilfred Owen’s “passing bells for these who die as cattle”. The predominance of minor third lamentation consolidates the sense of hopelessness; the serenity of the English countryside, so often a theme in Vaughan Williams’ music, is veiled by darkness and drizzle.

Eschewing broad melody, this symphony derives most of its appeal from its innovative and atmospheric sonorities … Boult’s advocacy results in the perfect balance between drama and lyricism and the playing of the LPO is impeccable.”

This double-bill, single CD makes a fitting conclusion to a splendid tribute from Pristine to one of England’s few greatest composers.

Ralph Moore

Published: October 12, 2022

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