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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Complete Symphonies
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1
The Lark Ascending
In the Fen Country
On Wenlock Edge
Sheila Armstrong (soprano), Felicity Lott (soprano), Amanda Roocroft (soprano), Ian Bostridge (tenor), Jonathan Summers (baritone), Sarah Chang (violin)
Cantilena/Lena Philips
London Philharmonic Choir/Richard Cooke
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
rec. London, 1984-1998
Full contents-list at end of review
WARNER CLASSICS 9847592 [7 CDs: 454:46]

The recorded music of Elgar and Vaughan Williams has long been equated with British conductors: Boult, Handley, Hickox, Barbirolli and Davis, both Andrew and Colin. By no means all of them have recorded the nine RVW symphonies. Non-Brits have not been numerous and on occasion their critical reception in these waters has been cool or even chilly. There are exceptions and Previn's 1960s-into-1970s complete RVW cycle for what was then RCA remains a golden alternative to Boult's feted EMI cycle of much the same era. The Previn has lost none of its freshness and magnetism although audio technology has moved on. Previn later also recorded the Elgar symphonies for Philips and returned strongly to RVW 2 and 5 for Telarc as he also did for Walton 1: originally RCA then Telarc. Solti's electrifying Elgar symphonies (Decca) with their no-holds-barred passion won me over to those two works when I was in my twenties at a time when Boult’s Elgar left me cold and unmoved. How does Haitink, who also produced an exciting pair of Elgar symphonies for EMI (now Warner), square up in the RVW symphonies stakes?
 
This cycle, from the same orchestra Boult used for his EMI set (excepting the NPO in No. 6), emerged disc by disc over some fifteen years: 1984-1998 from sessions held predominantly in No. 1 Studio Abbey Road. Symphonies 3, 4 and 6 were set down at the Watford Colosseum.
 
We open proceedings with a palate-cleansing and brusquely fanfaring Sea Symphony. This is less Stanford-choral than the Boult EMI and Decca equivalents. Felicity Lott is in supreme form with only Jonathan Summers understated and unassertive by comparison with John Carol Case. Lott can be sampled in full ecstatic sail in Flaunt out in the first movement and in O Thou transcendent in the fourth. Incidentally, those studying and enjoying this work in depth will find the multiple division of the Haitink extremely attractive. There are 15 tracks in all so navigating and ‘butterflying’ from one favourite episode to another is easy. More of this, please. The balance slightly shades the orchestra over the choir, which is to the good. The solo voices have sufficient presence and prominence, offering some consolation when it comes to the baritone in this version.
 
A London Symphony is recorded with a wide dynamic range such that the opening is barely even a whisper, barely a groan. At the other extreme the engineers hold back just sufficient to ensure your fear for eardrums or neighbours is misplaced. The psychological approach is contemplative and relaxed. Then again this reflects the strong vein of philosophical reflection and calm absorption in this work. At 9.50 in the first movement a whole episode prepares the ground for the tender poetry of Serenade to Music and for the moonlit music in Dirge for Two Veterans in Dona Nobis Pacem. It also reaches backwards to the very early and peaceful little tone poem, The Solent. This is the symphony of a poet- or philosopher-composer and it ends and opens in a quiet abstraction to which Haitink is fully empathetic.
 
This Tallis Fantasia is not given to great sweeping passionate outbursts. Haitink is, in this case, no Silvestri or Barbirolli; even Boult is more flamboyant. So if you favour a cooler and less profligately emotional Tallis then this is for you. I will look elsewhere.
 
Putting those two opposites - symphonies 3 and 4 - on one disc makes CD3 the longest in the set. Having established that Haitink's proclivities lie in pensive directions, the Pastoral, a symphony comprising four slow movements, can be expected to play to his strengths; so it does in its movingly elegiac way. Yet there is gravitas too, as in the groaning, bell-swung introduction to the quicker third movement in which passion is certainly a presence. Amanda Roocroft is a discreet and distant vocalising player in this poetic pilgrimage - another voice alongside those of the orchestra. Interesting that similar vocalises play their role in Nielsen's own Pastoral Symphony and in Alfven's Fourth although in the wonderful Swedish work those voices are erotic-ecstatic and heated in a way quite different from that adopted in RVW3.
 
The Fourth Symphony is a more obstreperous and impatient work lying on a different ley-line from that of its predecessor. The glorious singing violins at 1.03 onwards in the first movement gaze towards the Sixth Symphony. In fact there is much of turbulence in the Fourth that speaks of a precursor to the next but one Symphony. The Scherzo is rather plodding beside most other versions although one certainly discerns the details more clearly. There is an epilogue to the Fourth Symphony's finale, even if it is quick, angry, rhetorical and dramatic rather than introspectively absorbed in the way of the counterparts in the London and the Sixth.
 
While Poe dominated much of the music of Holbrooke - Hardy likewise for Finzi - RVW was drawn strongly to Whitman (A Sea Symphony, Dona Nobis Pacem, Toward the Unknown Region and various songs) and to Bunyan. The Fifth Symphony is a Bunyan work, drawing deep from the mystical springs of A Pilgrim's Progress. It is a work, and this is a reading, that is liable to have you smiling - try the first three minutes of the finale.
 
Both Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 (CD4) and In the Fen Country (CD5) are in the composer's early Delian pastoral idiom as encountered in The Solent (now recorded on Albion) and Willow Wood (Naxos).
 
Nice to hear Sarah Chang in this perfectly proportioned The Lark Ascending. Here I favour Hugh Bean's classic account which feels more leisurely in its pacing - less pushed.
 
CD5 launches - no messing about - with that most universal of the nine symphonies. This Sixth Symphony is a furnace comparable to the composer's own classic version of the Fourth. Haitink feels more natural in this than in the Sixth's pre-war companion, No. 4. This is a very fine version indeed and I have no misgivings about it. I always thought Haitink's Shostakovich symphonies bleached and pastel beside Mravinsky and Kondrashin. Here in RVW6 Haitink finds his métier in a work with depth of emotion and breadth of vision much as did Previn in his analogue RCA-BMG set. At 06:00 we hear, most luminously presented, that slow surging harp-winged melody used so tellingly as the signature music for ITV's A Family at War series in the 1970s.
 
On Wenlock Edge in its orchestral finery of 1923 is among RVW's very finest works. The marriage of the Ravelian clarity of the scoring and Housman's poetry is a perfect match. It is only excelled by C.W. Orr's voice and piano settings. I learnt this work from a tape of a 1972 centenary broadcast by Richard Lewis (later issued in the 1980s on Intaglio INCD7411) and from Ian Partridge's wonderful EMI recording with the Music Group of London. Bostridge is extremely good with Haitink, reflecting the meaning of the words rather than just the words. He is good at variegating his voice to echo the living and dead in Is my team ploughing. Forgive me if I hanker after an obscure version I prefer - namely Gerald English’s Unicorn-Kanchana recording (KP8001) which, if you can get it on CD, is well worth hearing. I cannot get enough of English's sharply communicative and even acetic voice. Bostridge is excellent - make no mistake - and you get an authentic shiver on the words 'Never ask me whose'. Bredon Hill - an operatic scena in all but name and comparable with Orr's Farewell to Barn and Stack and Tree - shimmers most tellingly. As for the last song Clun, Haitink and Bostridge impart a full-hearted summer to each note in a way that even English and Measham cannot match. I remember Richard Adams playing this recording to me in 1998 close to when it first came out and its impact has dimmed hardly at all.
 
The Sinfonia Antartica is best thought of as a series of cinematic tableaux. The Haitink version is enhanced by very good recording quality as with all seven of these discs and by the decision not to record a reading of the poetic superscriptions of each movement. It is a work of episodes and sub-episodes and as such it is a pity that each was not separately tracked as was done with the Sea Symphony. Sheila Armstrong in 1984 was still in very good voice for the vocalises as was the LP Choir under Richard Cooke. Speaking of vocalises, when is someone going to record again the composer's late Three Vocalises for soprano and clarinet. The only quibble I have with this Antartica is that the wind machine sounds feeble - rather the like a remote floor polisher escaped into the distance from Malcolm Arnold’s A Grand Grand Overture. It's a minor glitch in a work of vividly conjured aural images. Even so I would count this as the least successful of the Nine.
 
The last CD completes the picture. Haitink's half hour Eighth is elegant, playful and poignant. It is a light but not superficial symphony and in its cavalcade of movements it reminds me of RVW's underrated Suite for Viola and Orchestra. Haitink appears to relish the variety.
 
The Ninth Symphony has more in common with the Fourth and Sixth than with its two predecessors. It has few obvious finger-holds for the memory but do persist and it will engrave itself on your affections. Its alleged Hardy links - both Return of the Native and Mayor of Casterbridge - seem plausible. There's a Holstian ‘haggard Egdon’ undertow to this music at which Haitink is good, as he is in the Sixth. Those three saxophones - deliciously malevolent, serenading gargoyles - recall both Apollyon and the Vanity Fair episode from A Pilgrim's Progress. The finale sports an unmissable RVW melody of the same calibre as those that loft the Fifth Symphony high. 
 
LPO Live have just issued a CD of symphonies 5 and 7 from live concerts that took place in parallel with the recording sessions. This has been reviewed by Dan Morgan.
 
Earlier reviews of individual discs from the cycle are to be found here, here and here.
 
The liner booklet note is by Andrew Burn. His approach is concise - no doubt, as commissioned - but with all the essentials in place and invigorating links made. There are translations into French and German.
 
It is one of the early marks of the Parlophone group having been taken over by Warner that this set is issued under the Warner Classics logo. The only trace of the EMI Classics provenance is in the distinctive catalogue serial pattern with its 50999 stem.

This set presents RVW in a slightly heretical way that will appeal to those whose RVW tastes have become jaded or for those who have, for whatever reason, been put off by the mainstream cycles. Well worth the price - which is modest - and the journey.
 
Rob Barnett  

Vaughan Williams review index
 
Contents List 
CD 1 [71:12]
Symphony No. 1 for soprano, baritone, chorus and orchestra (A Sea Symphony) [71:12]
 
CD 2 [65:51]
Symphony No. 2 (A London Symphony) [49:33]
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, for two string orchestras [16:16]
 
CD 3 [72:00]
Symphony No. 3 for soprano or tenor and orchestra (Pastoral) [39:00]
Symphony No. 4 in F minor [32:57]
 
CD 4 [68:17]
Symphony No. 5 in D major [43:06]
Norfolk Rhapsody for orchestra No. 1 in E minor [11:36]
The Lark Ascending, romance for violin and orchestra [13:33]
 
CD 5 [68:39]
Symphony No. 6 in E minor [33:06]
In the Fen Country, symphonic impression for orchestra [13:57]
On Wenlock Edge, song cycle for tenor and orchestra [21:31]
 
CD 6 [41:37]
Symphony No. 7 for soprano, small female chorus and orchestra with narrator ad lib ("Sinfonia Antartica") [41:37]
 
CD 7 [67:10]
Symphony No. 8 in D minor [30:39]
Symphony No. 9 in E minor [36:29] 

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