Is a Vaughan Williams cycle quietly emerging from Manchester?
After Elder’s revelatory recording of the complete incidental
music for The Wasps (review)
we had to wait quite a while for more Vaughan Williams from
this source – Elgar was one priority, so, too, was Wagner –
but then at the end of 2011 an excellent account of the ‘London’
Symphony arrived (review).
Now two more symphonies have been set down. As was the case
with their last RVW disc we have here a mixture of one performance
(the Eighth) recorded under studio conditions while the Fifth
comes from a live performance and rehearsals for that concert.
The performance of the Fifth is beautifully judged and shows
complete empathy with the music. As is well known, RVW used
material from his then-unfinished ‘morality’, Pilgrim’s
Progress. The thematic links are most obvious in the third
movement, though snippets crop up elsewhere, but much of the
work seems imbued with the spirit of Pilgrim, even
when there’s no actual musical link.
The first movement unfolds serenely here, the pacing ideal.
The orchestral playing is very fine and the various lines are
well balanced against each other. The change to E major (3:03)
is radiant. A slightly darker mood intrudes at 4:30 with the
first appearance of a three-note woodwind motif which seems
to me to echo the music to which Pilgrim’s enemies sing the
words “away with him” in the stage work. Elder injects the right
amount of energy into the middle section of the movement before
the rich, warm climax (8:09), which opens up grandly. His reading
of this movement is one of those occasions when everything just
The scherzo is all half-lights and Elder and his players are
alive to all the subtleties of the scoring. This movement always
puts me in mind for some reason of Shakespeare’s A
Midsummer Night’s Dream but, as Michael Kennedy says
in his notes “the general atmosphere is one of uneasiness.”
The playing of the Hallé displays excellent precision until,
eventually, the music just vanishes into thin air at the end.
The wondrous, tranquil ‘Romanza’ is rapt at the start and as
the movement unfolds there’s a genuine glow to the playing.
The strings play superbly and there’s also much fine and expressive
work from the woodwinds. Elder leads an elevated account of
this moving music; you feel that the Delectable Mountains are
very much in sight.
Much of the passacaglia finale exhibits unforced good spirits,
especially at the start. In the section between 2:32 and 3:24
RVW weaves in melodic snatches of “He who would valiant be”
from the Arming of the Pilgrim scene in Pilgrim’s Progress
and this underscores the resolute spirit of the music. We hear
once again the horn call with which the symphony opened but
this time (5:42) it’s in an augmented and climactic version
played by the full brass. What began life as a hesitant motif
over thirty minutes ago re-emerges confidently and triumphantly
and in this performance it’s a most satisfying moment. Quiet
recollections of the horn call pervade the soft, serene epilogue,
which is played with great refinement by the Hallé. There’s
one final reference to Pilgrim as we hear a motif to
which the Pilgrim sings the words “I will go forth on my journey”;
that seems completely appropriate as this lovely symphony draws
to a serene close. This is a captivating performance of the
work, fit to stand comparison with any that I’ve heard.
One wonderful thing about exploring the symphonies of Vaughan
Williams is that they all reflect different aspects of the man
himself. The Eighth is a very different proposition to the Fifth;
for one thing, as Michael Kennedy says, it’s the “least serious”
of the nine, though he’s careful to point out that this doesn’t
mean it lacks a serious side. The work has very strong Hallé
connections. It was dedicated to Sir John Barbirolli, Elder’s
distinguished predecessor, who conducted the première in Manchester
in 1956 and who made the first recording of the piece the following
Since Barbirolli presided over the Hallé’s first period of eminence
it’s good to find Elder, who has led it to its second period
of eminence, making a recording of it. The symphony has been
in their repertoire for a while; my late Seen and Heard colleague,
Bob Briggs, enjoyed a Proms performance that Elder and the Hallé
gave together as far back as 2008 (review).
I was struck by Bob’s comment: “Treated with respect, the music
emerged triumphant as a bright and breezy symphonic divertissement
– entertaining for both orchestra and listeners.” That comes
over in this studio recording also.
I don’t know if RVW designed the work to show off Barbirolli’s
orchestra – that may well be the case – but it certainly does
show off a good orchestra, such as the present day Hallé. RVW
referred to the first movement as ‘seven variations in search
of a theme’. Elder brings out all the colour and panache in
the music. I particularly enjoyed the great dash with which
the second variation is invested while I thought that the third
variation almost harks back to the finale of the Fifth. The
second movement involves just the wind and brass – this scoring
and the fact that the succeeding movement is for strings alone
rather suggests RVW may have thought of the piece as something
of a ‘Concerto for the Hallé’. In this second movement the playing
is consistently crisp and tangy. The musicians seem to be relishing
the music, none more so than the first trumpet, Gareth Small,
whose rendition of his short, cheeky tune is a delight (0:36).
The strings take centre stage for the Cavatina. What a fine
string section Elder has assembled and trained! The scene is
set by the lovely tone of the cellos right at the start and
all their colleagues take their cue from that expressive, full-toned
playing. There are excellent solos from the leader, Lyn Fletcher,
whose expressiveness is matched by the principal cellist, Nicholas
Trygstad, near the end. I loved this sensitive, refined performance.
I also loved Michael Kennedy’s marvellously apt description
of the movement as a “beautiful, old-age reverie of farewells
to Tallis and larks ascending.” What a felicitous phrase!
In the finale the battery of percussion, silent since the first
movement, is well to the fore. The percussion comes over splendidly
in this recording, especially the gongs. For the most part this
movement is a jeu d’esprit and it’s remarkable to find
RVW, then in his eighties, delighting in and still experimenting
with orchestral sonorities. This is most emphatically not the
music of an old man nor that of a composer whose powers were
waning. This symphony – and the Ninth – remains under-appreciated,
I feel, but Sir Mark and his excellent orchestra make a most
persuasive case for it.
The recordings themselves are very good. The sound for the Eighth
is, inevitably, rather closer and more obviously the product
of a studio than is the case with the Fifth, which was recorded
in concert. Both teams of engineers have done a fine job and
in the Fifth I couldn’t detect any audience noise; there’s no
applause after the symphony ends. The excellent notes are by
Michael Kennedy, still writing with perception and enthusiasm
about music by a composer whose work has meant so much to him
for getting on for seven decades now. I always learn something
from his notes. For example, I didn’t know that the first movement
of the Fifth includes some music recycled from some military
band music that he was asked to write for a town pageant in
This splendid disc maintains the high standards of the stream
of recordings by Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé. I hope they will
continue to record Vaughan Williams symphonies but, above all,
I’d love to hear them in RVW’s orchestral masterpiece, Job.
I’d give a lot to hear what this partnership might bring to
that wonderful score.
us financially by purchasing this disc
for £11 postage paid World-wide.