Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Sinfonia Antartica (1949-52)
Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 in E minor (1906)
Symphony No. 9 in E minor (1956-58)
The Lark Ascending (1914, rev. 1920)
Lyn Fletcher (violin)
Sophie Bevan (soprano)
Sopranos and altos of the Hallé Choir
Hallé/Sir Mark Elder
rec. live and studio, 2005-2021, Manchester
HALLÉ CDHLD7558 [2 CDs: 107]
This two-disc set completes the Vaughan Williams symphony cycle by the Hallé and Sir Mark Elder. I’ve reviewed all the previous releases, beginning with A London Symphony way back in in 2011. The recordings have been a mix of live and studio recordings. With one or two reservations, I’ve enjoyed and admired the cycle and I think it would be fair to say that, overall, the series has been warmly received on MusicWeb International, with all the releases appraised by at least two reviewers. That said, when the Hallé reissued the symphonies, shorn of the ‘fillers’, as a boxed set earlier this year I read with considerable interest the comprehensive and thoughtful review of the complete cycle by my colleague, Nick Barnard. In a very balanced judgement, Nick admitted to being “rather underwhelmed as a whole”. I think it’s valuable for readers to have different perspectives on this series.
One comment of Nick’s that particularly caught my eye was his observation that “there seems to be a preferred production choice of a recessed sound and the discs mastered at a lower level than normal”. I must confess that I’ve not been unduly troubled by sound quality when listening to the previous issues in the set. However, in the last year or two I’ve listened to a number of studio-made recordings of various Vaughan Williams symphonies and it would be fair to say that some of the Hallé recordings have not offered such immediate sound. This latest release offers a case in point. The Ninth Symphony was set down under studio conditions in Hallé St Peter’s in Manchester whereas Sinfonia Antartica was recorded live (and in rehearsal) in the much bigger space of the city’s Bridgewater Hall. I think the sound for Sinfonia Antartica is fully satisfactory but the recording of the Ninth has rather more impact and presence. Thinking back over the previous releases, I wonder if the Bridgewater Hall recordings aren’t so much recessed but, rather, the engineers have aimed for a realistic concert hall perspective. If so, then I think they’ve been successful.
I’m very glad that Elder and the Hallé were able to complete their cycle in time for the 150th anniversary of VW’s birth, though I suspect the suspension of normal concert life in the UK for most of 2020 meant that it was a matter of touch and go; it was not possible to schedule the recording of the Ninth until November 2021. The orchestra has an important place in the British performing history of the VW symphonies. The works were regularly programmed by Sir John Barbirolli and in his very good notes Andrew Burn points out that in the 1951/52 season, Barbirolli and the orchestra honoured VW’s 80th birthday by performing all six of the symphonies that had been composed at that time. In gratitude VW gave them the opportunity to premiere Sinfonia Antartica in 1953 and they went on to make the first recording a few months later (review). The Eighth was then dedicated to Barbirolli who led the Hallé in the work’s 1956 premiere. Fast forward some 70 years and in season 2021/22 the Hallé and the BBC Philharmonic between them performed all nine symphonies in the Bridgewater Hall. I wonder if the present recording of the Ninth was made in conjunction with those concerts.
Recently, when reviewing Martyn Brabbins’ new recording of the Eighth symphony, I suggested that despite the high regard in which VW is held nowadays, his last three symphonies still don’t quite get the attention they deserve – at least in the concert hall. So, I’m delighted to find two of those symphonies coupled in this present issue.
As is well known, VW quarried his incidental music for the 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic when he came to write the Sinfonia Antartica. It may not be as taut a construction as any of the three preceding symphonies but I think it’s a fine and deeply expressive score. Moreover, it finds the composer, even well into his eighth decade, ever curious about orchestral colours and timbres. The first of the five movements opens with music of gaunt majesty; that ambience is really well conveyed here. At 2:43 we hear a chill depiction of the Antarctic wilderness with tuned percussion making glacial contributions. Sophie Bevan and the ladies of the Hallé Choir ae ideally positioned in the sound picture. As the movement unfolded, I came to appreciate the patience with which Elder conducts the music. Meanwhile, his orchestra delivers VW’s highly imaginative palette of sound very well.
The Scherzo is taken quite steadily; in this performance the emphasis is on clarity, colour and rhythmic precision. VW’s depictions of whales (2:16) and the comic gait of penguins (3:17) registers nicely. The third movement, ‘Landscape’ is the cold, dark heart of the symphony. I very much admire the way the quiet, forbidding opening is played: this landscape should not be ventured into by anyone who is faint of heart. As in the first movement, Elder’s patience – and concentration – pays dividends in this slow-moving music of foreboding. The movement’s implacable climax (from 6:51) vividly suggests, as it should, a towering glacier and when the organ adds its solemn power the climax becomes truly imposing. The Intermezzo movement offers welcome contrast, at least initially. Right at the start we hear a lovely oboe solo, beautifully supported by the harp; the opening pages are full of nostalgia for the explorers’ homes and loved ones. This is primarily a tender movement, though mid-way through, in a passage of quiet solemnity, Captain Oates and the glacial landscape which claimed him are called to mind. The members of the Hallé give a very sensitive account of this movement. In the martial episodes of the Epilogue VW depicts resolve and heroism; Elder and his players rise to the occasion and convey a sense of the explorers’ struggle against the odds. At the end the female voices are again ideally distanced. The final intervention by the singers and the wind machine reminds us that the implacable Antarctic wilderness has the last word. I’m glad that no applause is heard on the recording; instead, the performance subsides into eerie silence.
Nick Barnard described the Ninth symphony as “a nailed-on masterpiece”; I wouldn’t dissent. It’s very interesting to hear the symphony in close proximity to Sinfonia Antartica. For example, the opening of the first movements of both symphonies seem to inhabit similar musical territory. Writing of the Ninth, Andrew Burn says that the opening “has a monumental grandeur that recalls Bruckner”. I don’t disagree but you could just as easily substitute the words ‘Sinfonia Antartica’ for ‘Bruckner’. Not long ago, I reviewed a recording of the Ninth’s premiere under Sir Malcolm Sargent and I compared his timings for the various movements with those on the two commercial recordings by Sir Adrian Boult. In summary, Sargent took about 8 minutes to play the first movement while the Boult performances played for just over nine minutes. Elder’s overall timing is longer, at 10:01, but I never felt that the music was dragging; au contraire, I admired the expansive yet purposeful fashion in which he presents the music. He gives the music a welcome sense of space and makes it suitably imposing, helped by sonorous playing by the Hallé. The tense yet tranquil conclusion, starting with a lovely, rhapsodic violin solo (from around 7:00), is expertly judged.
In the slow movement there’s something of a clash of two worlds. On the one hand, there are nostalgic episodes which derive from the flugelhorn solo that’s heard right at the start. The solo melody comes from an idea first encountered in the early tone poem, The Solent and then recycled into A Sea Symphony. In jarring contrast to the nostalgic passages is the menacing rat-a-tat figure which frequently intrudes on drums and brass. Elder and his team generate significant power in those sections but also show great finesse in the quiet, nostalgic music. The present performance of the Scherzo really brings out the sinister, sardonic nature of the music. That’s thanks to punchy playing by the orchestra. I was glad to hear the trio of saxophones make a telling contribution. The finale offers the most visionary music in the work. Elder is not afraid to be spacious in his approach. The rather crude measure of the stopwatch shows that he takes 13:03, whereas Sargent, admittedly with no performance history on which to draw, took just 10 minutes; Boult took around 12 minutes in his two recordings. It never struck me that Elder was too slow. Indeed, even with expansive speeds he maintains tension and momentum. Furthermore, in the last few minutes, as the symphony builds to its conclusion, there’s power and urgency in the performance. At the very end those wonderful washes of harp sound and the final otherworldly interjections from the saxophones make just the right effect.
The two symphony performances in this set are excellent. I found Elder’s conducting was very convincing at all times and the Hallé plays marvellously for him.
The two ‘fillers are not new to the catalogue. Both appeared on a mixed programme of British music which my colleague Em Marshall-Luck reviewed as long ago as 2008. In The Lark Ascending the soloist is Lyn Fletcher, who led the Hallé with great distinction from 1997 until 2019. She plays the rhapsodic solo part very well, though I understand why my colleague had reservations. For all Ms Fletcher’s skill, I have heard more magical accounts of the orchestral accompaniment; for example, the folk-like tune which the woodwind introduce at 6:52 is just a bit too steady in pace and sounds rather lumpy as a result. Still, it’s good that this performance has been swept up into the Hallé’s VW series and it’s a welcome reminder of the artistry of Lyn Fletcher. From the same sessions came Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1. I liked the performance of this little piece. The main theme is the traditional tune The Captain’s Apprentice, which has come to new prominence in the recent book by Caroline Davison, The Captain’s Apprentice: Ralph Vaughan Williams and the Story of a Folk Song (2022, Penguin). That tune is the basis for the lyrical passages in this piece; the performance is responsive to the poetry in VW’s music. In the middle of the Rhapsody there’s a much livelier episode based on two more Norfolk tunes; here the playing has good spirit.
So, Sir Mark Elder’s Vaughan William series has come to a fine conclusion with his performances of these two symphonies. It’s been an admirable series and I suspect that Sir John Barbirolli, that great champion of VW, would have rejoiced that his old orchestra has done this great composer proud. I say the series has come to a conclusion: I’d love to be proved wrong. Perhaps there might be the opportunity for Elder and the Hallé to give us some of the choral works on CD in the future? I recall that just a few years ago they performed the visionary Sancta Civitas at the BBC Proms – amazingly, the first time the work had been heard there (review). The thought that one day Sir Mark might record that sadly underrated work and Dona Nobis Pacem with his orchestra and the fine Hallé Choir would be a mouth-watering prospect. For now, though, with the conclusion of the symphony cycle Manchester has certainly honoured Ralph Vaughan Williams in his 150th anniversary year.
Previous reviews: Michael Cookson (June 2022) ~ Stephen Barber (July 2022)
The Hallé Vaughan Williams cycle
A Sea Symphony
A London Symphony
A Pastoral Symphony
Symphonies 4 & 6
Symphonies 5 & 8
Job – A Masque for Dancing
Published: October 12, 2022