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.
see also review by John Quinn
(RECORDING OF THE MONTH -
*The first trumpeter at the premiere performance of the no.5 in 1943
were actually (the later) Sir Malcolm Arnold!