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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Symphony No.5 in D major (1938-43) [39:01]
Symphony No.8 in D minor (1953-55) [29:23]
Hallé/Sir Mark Elder
rec. live, 9 November 2011 and in rehearsal, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, England (Sym 5); 3 February 2012, BBC Studios, MediaCityUK, Salford, England. (Sym 8)
HALLÉ CD HLL 7533 [68:24]
 
I hope that this release from the Hallé will form part of a complete cycle of Vaughan Williams symphonies. On this evidence it should prove to be a distinguished one. Few orchestras today play Vaughan Williams as well as the Hallé under their music director Sir Mark Elder. The music seems to flow like lifeblood through their veins. Great clarity of thought, an enormous energy and a real sense of vision are characteristics of Elder’s conducting and the Hallé players respond positively.
 
I fondly remember reporting for Seen and Heard International at the Bridgewater Hall concert in November 2011 from which this new live Hallé recording of Symphony No.5 was taken. Composed when Vaughan Williams was in his mid-sixties to early-seventies it was the composer himself who introduced the score in 1943 at a BBC Proms concert*. A commonly expressed view that the symphony is “a vision of peace” seems incongruous with the horrors of the world war that was raging at the time. To open the Preludio a haunting pair of horns intone over dark and mysterious low strings. The predominant mood is one of absorbing introspection with a simmering undercurrent of anxiety. Throughout there is a glorious fluidity to the music with playing that often feels evocative of opening a window onto a winter fenland scene. I can almost feel the early morning mist clinging to the moist earth. How the swirling Scherzo heaves with activity with a distinct sense of unease and apprehension underlined. Here the playing feels taut and incisive. The Romanza is saturated with passion and the writing speaks of humanity. In Sir Mark’s hands the music feels like an elegy for a receding way of life, in honour of those who were dying to protect it. At one special point the playing from the Hallé was so rapt that time seemed to stand still. Stunningly played by Stéphane Rancourt and Thomas Davey the writing for the combination of oboe and cor anglais could only have come from the pen of Vaughan Williams. Throughout I was struck by the unity and appealing timbre of the glorious string sound and Lyn Fletcher’s solo violin part towards the peaceful and heavily melancholic close of the movement. Generally stormy in character, the Passacaglia, Finale is a curious blend of anxiety, fuelled with eager anticipation. The peaceful and glowing conclusion to the score feels just perfect.
 
Vaughan Williams was an octogenarian when he composed his Symphony No.8 during a time when the Cold War was gaining momentum. The shortest of his set of nine symphonies the Eighth was introduced in 1956 by the Hallé under Sir John Barbirolli to whom the score is dedicated. It was certainly out of step with the progressive compositional schools that were in vogue at the time. The same dynamic also applies to the Ninth. Neither work has ever recovered this tainted reputation and I see them programmed only infrequently. The adeptly composed opening Fantasia in parts radiates that pastoral feel yet to my ears Sir Mark brings out a distinctly cinematic quality. Especially in the forte passages I am reminded of Rózsa’s score to the MGM historical epic Ben Hur composed a few years later in 1959. Scored for wind instruments only the short Scherzo alla Marcia has similarities to the sound-world of Paul Hindemith. This appealing movement conveys disarming buoyancy and mischievous revelry. The emotional heart of the work, the Cavatina, is scored for bowed strings. It is elegiac in character and has a sense of searching. Impressive pastoral qualities evoke a chilly autumn fenland scene with birds gathering for migration. I admire the solo violin part played by leader Lyn Fletcher with its uplifting character somewhat reminiscent of The Lark Ascending. In the Coda the doleful passage for solo cello brings the movement to a hushed close. The full orchestra combines in the Toccata: Finale. Here an array of exuberant extra percussion features heavily. Although the composer described the opening as “rather sinister” Sir Mark brings out a strong celebratory quality. The writing is often mocking, palpably questioning and sometimes strangely disconcerting and the Hallé play radiantly and with deep understanding.
 
Of the alternative recordings my two long time favourites are included in excellent sets of the complete symphonies. Firstly the powerfully expressive performances by Sir Adrian Boult with the London Philharmonic Orchestra/New Philharmonia Orchestra. Boult recorded the set in 1967/71 in London and I have these on EMI Classics 0-87484-2. Secondly for their stunning musicianship there’s André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra., These were recorded in 1968/72 also in London and can be heard on RCA Red Seal 82876-55708-2.
 
This new Hallé release of the Symphony No. 5 was recorded live and also from rehearsal sessions. The warm sound quality of the performance is to a good standard, however, the balance could have been slightly improved and it feels a touch over-bright. Whilst the Symphony No. 8 was recorded in February 2012 in the studio it has the benefit of crystal clear and well balanced sound. Liner notes written by Michael Kennedy are of the quality that one would expect from such a knowledgeable source. Although I would not wish to dispense with Boult or Previn this admirable Hallé release can confidently stand alongside any of the competition. This is surely a golden period for the Hallé and Elder and any of their recordings are worthy of attention. Lovers of symphonic music will be in their element with this outstanding Vaughan Williams release.
 
Michael Cookson

see also review by John Quinn (RECORDING OF THE MONTH - February 2013)
 

*The first trumpeter at the premiere performance of the no.5 in 1943 were actually (the later) Sir Malcolm Arnold!
Ulf Skjæran


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