Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Symphony No 7 ‘Sinfonia antartica’
Symphony No 8 in D major
London Philharmonic Orchestra & Choir/Sir Adrian Boult
Margaret Ritchie (soprano)
John Gielgud (speaker)
rec.1953 & 1956
Reviewed as 24-bit FLAC download
Ambient Stereo/stereo
The Complete Symphonies Volume 4

All three previous volumes have been warmly received here on MusicWeb (Sea Symphony; Symphonies 2 & 3; Symphonies 4 & 5); they were already performances of stature but their remastering by Pristine has lent them even greater appeal, especially as of course the pre-1956 recordings in the series were originally made in mono but have now been remastered and rendered into Ambient Stereo by Pristine to sound far better than in any previous incarnation. Presumably, the fifth and final volume will present symphonies 6 and 9, completing a highly attractive and desirable cycle.

The Sinfonia antartica is more of a free-form suite than a symphony and on its appearance was roundly lambasted by some very patronising critics as “mere film music”, a failure and even “unmusical”, as James Altena’s note details. Once again, the sound here (in a recording supervised by the composer) is now indistinguishable from a regular stereo recording of the period; the slow, pacing majesty of the prelude, followed by the eery, tinkling “ice-music”, keening soprano and women’s chorus (from the London Philharmonic Choir; oddly, Pristine seems to have forgotten them in the credits) are immediately remarkably vivid and atmospheric – and the wind machine sounds realistic; too often the engineers place it wrongly or the instrument itself comes over as hokey. The organ at the close of the third movement is mighty and massive and balances are superb throughout.

A certain YouTube critic absurdly dismisses both this and the Barbirolli recording as “horrible” and typically describes their orchestras as “third-rate”. I can understand why, when it was in its original mono form, it might previously have been deemed inadequate to the demands of a work which, above all, requires glamorous sonics to encompass the unusual timbres and textures Vaughan Williams conjured up via a battery of eclectic instruments, but that is certainly no longer the case – if it ever was - after Pristine’s treatment of it - and I am sure Beecham and Boult would have been surprised to learn that their orchestra was “third-rate”...

The seascape Scherzo – the only bright spot in this tragic tale – is delicately executed and Boult skilfully builds the central Lento to create a vast, chilling landscape. The first half of the Intermezzo is tenderly played, as if the explorers, struggling through the frozen waste, are remembering the pastoral idyll of the homeland they left behind before a succession of discords wrenches them back to their current suffering. The deliberately shocking cacophony of the final movement – melodious and discordant by turns – and its conclusion, first noble then frighteningly desolate, are powerfully rendered.

Frustratingly, no information is provided regarding the provenance of the prefatory readings to the five movements so sonorously read by Sir John Gielgud. I append them here for the listener’s reference.

The Eighth Symphony could hardly present a greater contrast to its bleak predecessor, being short and predominately sunny – but with an undercurrent of sadness or nostalgia – and ending on a triumphant note. A link with the Seventh, however, is the composer’s employment of exotic instruments to create novel textures; hence we hear the vibraphone, glockenspiel, tubular bells, gongs, xylophone and celesta in addition to the normal percussion bank - and two harps for good measure. These all come through very distinctly in this remastered stereo recording with pleasing depth of sound.

Boult and the LPO play with considerable verve and bravura, finding the offbeat wit and humour in both the first movement – which the composer impishly called “‘seven variations in search of a theme” - and the spiky Scherzo, while the Cavatina is passionately delivered, featuring excellent violin and cello solos. The finale could hardly be more exhilarating and is typical of the composer in his most exuberant and vivacious mode, despite already being in his eighties when he composed the work.

Ralph Moore
Prefatory readings in the Seventh Symphony
1. Prelude:
To suffer woes which hope thinks infinite,
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night,
To defy power which seems omnipotent, ...
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent:
This ... is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free,
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire and Victory.
(Shelley, Prometheus Unbound)
2. Scherzo:
There go the ships, and there is that Leviathan whom thou hast made to take his pastime therein. (Psalm 104, Verse 26)
3. Landscape:
Ye ice falls! Ye that from the mountain's brow
Adown enormous ravines slope amain —
Torrents, methinks, that heard a mighty voice,
And stopped at once amid their maddest plunge!
Motionless torrents! Silent cataracts!
(Coleridge, Hymn before Sunrise, in the vale of Chamouni)
4. Intermezzo:
Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.
(Donne, The Sun Rising)
5. Epilogue:
I do not regret this journey; we took risks, we knew we took them, things have come out against us, therefore we have no cause for complaints.
(Captain Scott's Last Journal)