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VW syms45 PASC665

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Symphony No. 4 in F minor (1934)
Symphony No. 5 in D (1943)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
rec. 2-5 December 1953, Kingsway Hall, London

Following on their spectacularly successful remasterings of earlier instalments in the 1950s Decca cycle of the Vaughan Williams symphonies conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, this latest instalment from Pristine Audio is conspicuously welcome. Not only does it demonstrate the sheer quality of the original LP sound (produced by John Culshaw and James Walker) but also the depth of resonance to be found in the material and which I found so disappointing in the recent Eloquence reissues of the almost contemporaneous recorded cycle of Sibelius symphonies conducted by Anthony Collins (and taken from original tapes). Comparisons were rendered particularly happy since my first acquaintance with the Vaughan Williams Fourth came from this very recording, in a full-price Decca LP borrowed from my local library. I hadn’t heard it for years, and had totally forgotten how much sheer lyricism Boult found in a symphony that is usually regarded as a byword for Vaughan Williams at his most astringent and rebarbative. Often adjusting the tempo downwards to obtain the desired effect, he obtains a richness of playing from the orchestra which puts into the shade the earlier recording conducted by the composer where RVW’s passionate hell-for-leather pacing can lead to moments of what sound like sheer panic on the part of the instrumentalists (although Boult had conducted the première with the same players). Modern orchestras have much less to fear from the music, of course, and many conductors have taken advantage of this to provide us with more forward-thrusting deliveries especially of the first movement; but Vaughan Williams was in the studio to supervise these Decca recordings, and would certainly have raised objections to anything which failed to match his expectations. And the acid scherzo leading into the equally astringent finale has all the vigour and excitement one could possibly wish.

Boult did of course return to the Vaughan Williams cycle after the composer’s death, but I must admit that I found his 1960s remake of the Fourth far less engaging. In particular the New Philharmonia Orchestra, at that time in a somewhat parlous state following their loss of funding from Walter Legge, was far less secure in their playing than the London Philharmonic here, with a very noticeable lack of unanimity even in their attack on the grinding opening discord. It is interesting to note also that, quite apart from his EMI remake, a third Boult recording of the Fifth has recently appeared taken from a live 1975 Proms performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and John Quinn in his review of the latter commented on Boult’s large-scale reconsideration of the Romanza movement, reducing its playing time from 10.50 on EMI to 9.00 in the Albert Hall. That is already a massive change in proportion, and here on Decca Boult takes even longer – 10.58 – and again presumably with the composer’s approbation.

I must admit that I have never taken to the apparent attitude of some conductors that Vaughan Williams needs to be jostled along, in order to avoid moments of suspected boredom or even stagnation. In this context, there is a well-known story told by Wagner of how, when he was conducting in London in the 1850s and had been persuaded to schedule a symphony by Cipriani Potter, the composer had approached him and asked him to speed up the performance of the slow movement which he was afraid might cause impatience in the audience. Wagner responded, of course, by saying that by taking a slower speed he would actually compel greater concentration on the part of the listeners; and was gratified afterwards when Potter confessed that he was quite correct.

The VW Romanza in the Fifth is one of the most sublime meditations in all of English music, and the slightest impression of impatience – even when the composer does ask after the opening for a marginal acceleration – can completely disturb the atmosphere and ruin the effect. (Commentators who complain about the slow metronome mark for the similarly rapt opening of the finale in the Sea Symphony also completely miss the point.) And conductors have to be careful as well not to disturb the mood by starting out on the concluding passacaglia at too brisk a pace; VW marks the movement “moderato” and means what he says, not the “Allegro comodo” we too often hear. Boult again gets it just right, with the composer sitting in the audience; Culshaw in his autobiography clearly states that Vaughan Williams was entirely in sympathy with Sir Adrian’s approach to his music.

It is amazing to realise, from the dates given, that both of these superlative performances and recordings were the result of a mere three days of concentrated sessions in the midst of a cold London winter. We must always be eternally grateful for the fact that Decca were willing and able to undertake such a programme, in days when Vaughan Williams symphonies were by no means such sure-fire sellers as they are today. And we must be grateful also to the expert attention of Andrew Rose, whose XP remastering has provided such superb results for modern listeners. Perhaps even they may have improved on the originals; I never heard the full-price LP issue of the Fifth, but note that the editors of the 1955 Record Guide were disturbed by what they regarded as a “slight edge” in the tone of the LSO strings (although neither Gramophone nor later the Penguin Guide to Bargain Records expressed any such complaints). Whatever may have been the case, it is a problem no longer. Here the opalescence of the ambient sound has exactly the right sort of ambient glow, and the richness of the massed violins in the Romanza rivals the best of modern stereo. The sound on these Pristine reissues indeed brings this survey right back into contention as one of the most consistent and enjoyable of all recordings of this much-recorded cycle – even after seventy years.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: Ralph Moore

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