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Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) The Wasps Overture (1909) Symphony No. 6 in E minor (1948) Symphony No. 9 in E minor (1958)
BBC Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Malcolm Sargent
rec. live 12 September 1957, Royal Albert Hall, London, UK (Wasps); 4 August 1964, Royal Albert Hall, London, UK (No 6); 2 April 1958, Royal Festival Hall, London, UK (No 9).
Stereo AAD SOMM ARIADNE 5016 
This SOMM release is a significant contribution to the RWV150 celebrations, including as it does, the world premiere performance of Vaughan Williams’ last symphony. There are also performances of two other works, recorded at separate Proms concerts.
The Wasps receives a very good performance. The outer sections are bright and fast and I very much like the energy of Sargent’s conducting. The generous, lyrical big tune is very well shaped; there’s affection here and no hint of undue haste.
I came to the Sixth Symphony very soon after
reviewing another recording of the work in a Proms performance; this time by Sir Arian Boult in 1972. Sargent’s account of the first movement is very strongly projected: the opening is explosive and the ‘galumphing’ music in compound time is given with ample vigour. Overall, the performance is urgent. In the closing pages, when VW brings in that big, sweeping tune, Sargent treats the music with greater breadth than Boult was to do in 1972, but he still maintains momentum. The Moderato movement which follows is good, but I feel that Boult better conveys the tension in the music. The Scherzo didn’t explode out of the blocks, as it should, in the Boult performance but no one could level that charge at Sargent. Goodness, he does drive this movement hard! Some may find it a bit unrelenting, even aggressive, but the results are exciting and the BBC Symphony Orchestra is fully up to the challenge – though the recording masks a lot of inner detail. I think it’s something of a challenge for a conductor and orchestra to immediately lower their pulse rate when VW’s full-tilt Scherzo gives way attacca to the mysterious Epilogue. Sargent and the BBCSO manage this change very well. Their performance of VW’s mysterious Epilogue is a good, well-controlled one. At the end, the Proms audience gives warm applause and SOMM have retained the BBC announcement, in which the announcer tells us in clipped tones that the performance was, in fact, the last item in the first half of the programme.
If I’m honest, Sargent’s name is not one that would immediately spring to mind in connection with the music of Vaughan Williams. Maybe that’s because he made very few commercial recordings of the composer’s music – there was a recording of the ‘Tallis’ Fantasia, if I remember correctly. In fact, up to now the only Sargent recording of music by VW that I have in my collection is a live performance of the ‘London’ Symphony which he gave with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in July 1967. It was issued back in 2000 by the CSO in a boxed set, Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the Twentieth Century Collector’s Edition. I hadn’t listened to it in ages but the receipt of this SOMM disc caused me to take it down from the shelves. I’d forgotten how good it is, even if the Allegro risoluto in the first movement is too brisk for my liking. Sargent was mortally ill at the time; he died in the following October and I suspect this was one of the very last concerts he gave, though there’s no hint of failing powers in this performance – the Scherzo is another movement that is given lively treatment, as is the Allegro section of the finale. The Chicagoans play magnificently – how thrilled he must have been to have such a virtuoso ensemble at his disposal (he had never before conducted the orchestra). I mention this performance because I think it – and the account of the Sixth on this SOMM disc – go some way towards proving that Sargent could do VW’s music well.
Sargent was chosen to unveil the Ninth Symphony, presumably because the premiere was given at a Royal Philharmonic Society concert. I always think it’s a very tricky assignment for a conductor to lead the first performance of a work. Yes, you can consult the composer, assuming he/she is available for consultation. However, you have no performance history on which you can draw; it’s down to you to interpret the score. I’ve never heard this performance of the Ninth before, though I have read many comments to the effect that it was generally considered to be ‘unsatisfactory’. Simon Heffer makes a very interesting point in his notes: “Sargent took a strict approach to the score for the premiere, sticking to the composer’s metronome marks, a courtesy for which he was roundly attacked. Those who knew Vaughan Williams well claimed he possessed no metronome, and that his marks were effectively random. Certainly Sargent, as in all his accounts of Vaughan Williams’ music, employs a briskness that avoids the danger of a drift into self-indulgence”.
That’s a telling observation – and it chimes with my earlier comment about parts of the ‘London’ Symphony. I think it’s also worth recalling what Michael Kennedy had to say in his book The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams. He relates that there was a special three-hour rehearsal devoted to the symphony at St Pancras Town Hall in London “at which the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra made their first acquaintance with the work”. Such a rehearsal was outside the normal contractual arrangements. VW himself had to pay for it – the cost was over £250 – and that, says Kennedy, “was all the preparation the new symphony received before the rehearsal on the day of the first performance. In the event, and hardly surprisingly, the first performance did not do the work full justice”. So, allowances must be made. In some ways I find it hard to judge this first performance because, of course, I come to it with the ‘baggage’ of having heard it by subsequent conductors who have benefitted from – and themselves developed - the work’s performing history.
I think, though, that it’s very interesting to compare Sargent’s premiere performance with the first recording of the work which was made by Sir Adrian Boult just a few months later (review). VW was due to attend the sessions but, poignantly, he died in his sleep during the night preceding the recording. It will be noted that Boult’s overall timings for the outer movements of the symphony in particular differ quite a bit from Sargent’s, though they are rather more closely aligned in the two central movements, especially in the Scherzo. The timings are useful comparators in that they confirm, in general terms, a greater degree of breadth imparted to certain passages by Boult. I presume that both conductors had, and took, the opportunity to confer with the composer prior to their respective readings of the score. Boult, though, had an advantage over Sargent in that, assuming he heard the premiere, he would have been able to form a view as to what had worked well and what didn’t – and so, crucially, would VW himself. To the following table I’ve added, just for interest, the timings for Boult’s 1969 EMI studio recording, which shows a remarkable consistency with the 1958 Everest traversal
Sargent begins the symphony imposingly. A little later, though, I think the gentler episode introduced by the woodwinds (I:15) lacks a bit of ‘give’. As the movement unfolded, I came to feel increasingly that Sargent doesn’t shape transitions sufficiently well – though we must make allowance for the shortage of rehearsal time. There are other occasions when, compared to Boult, he seems somewhat impetuous. That said, the reflective closing minutes of the movement (from just after 5:00) are poetically done. The Andante sostenuto second movement comes off pretty well. Sargent is effective in the way he makes the contrast between the nostalgic, mysterious passages and the menacing staccato material. In those staccato episodes he’s a bit swifter and more biting than Boult and I like that.
Sargent’s account of the Scherzo put me in mind of the performance he would deliver a few years later of the Sixth Symphony’s Scherzo. The sardonic swagger of the music comes across convincingly and Sargent injects plenty of vigour into the performance. At first, I wondered if the opening of the Andante tranquillo finale was not a bit on the swift side. But then I reflected that the tempo indication is “only” Andante. Boult’s pulse is marginally steadier and, on balance, preferable. I’m less convinced by the way Sargent handles the last few minutes of the movement. The big climax (around 8:00 in the Sargent version) has much more grandeur under Boult. Frankly, the wonderfully inventive ending doesn’t quite come off. Those washes of harp sound and the mysterious saxophones don’t make the impact that I’d expect. Perhaps it’s a gesture and effect that needed more experience of the score and more rehearsal time to get absolutely right.
Having now heard the performance, I can understand why some commentators considered the premiere to be unsatisfactory – and, remember, at least some of those verdicts were delivered at the time or fairly soon after the performance; in other words, before a performing tradition had developed. Looking back now, with the benefit of hindsight and having heard the work many times, VW enthusiasts will be able to spot instances where the performance could have come off better. But I think a fair verdict should be that it was a commendable first effort, especially when one considers the rehearsal constraints. The RPO are not flawless but, with limited collective rehearsal time available to them, they do a valiant job. There have been many better recorded performances of the Ninth over the last 64 years but this is still a valuable document.
I don’t know if any of these performances have been available on CD before. Probably they have been, since SOMM are not making any claims of a “first CD release”. However, it’s hard to imagine that any earlier releases will have shown the performances in better light than do these new transfers by Lani Spahr. Naturally, given the age of the recordings, not all the inner detail comes across, especially in busy episodes such as the Scherzo of the Sixth. Also, there are occasions where the sheer power of VWs climaxes causes the recorded sound to become a bit fuzzy round the edges. But overall, I thought these transfers were very good indeed; in all cases the essence of the performance is properly conveyed. The booklet essay is by Simon Heffer, a biographer of the composer; it’s elegantly written – as one would expect – and most interesting.
This release is an important contribution to our celebrations of VW’s 150th anniversary. I noted with keen anticipation that the disc is badged as ‘Vaughan Williams Live, Vol. 1’; further instalments will be very welcome indeed.