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Vaughan Williams sys23 PASC662

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Symphony No. 2 A London Symphony
Symphony No. 3 Pastoral Symphony
Margaret Ritchie (soprano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
rec. 1952, Kingsway Hall, London. Ambient Stereo
Boult conducts Vaughan Williams vol. 2

This is the second release in Pristine Audio’s cycle of Boult’s traversal of Vaughan Williams’ symphonies. This performances were first issued on Decca's top of the range ffrr orange label. They subsequently appeared in multiple incarnations: on the Ace of Clubs label, then on Eclipse, and first on CD on Belart and Decca, then latterly on the Australian Eloquence label. Of great significance is the fact that the composer attended these recording sessions which were engineered by John Culshaw and Kenneth Wilkinson. For the first time these are available in ambient stereo remasterings by Andrew Rose. The first release of the series of RVW’s ‘Sea Symphony’ was enthusiastically reviewed here.

Of course, Sir Adrian Boult is the conductor most closely associated with Vaughan Williams and his second survey on EMI of 1971 allows us an opportunity to hear his view of these works after a gap of twenty years. In the stereo readings, Boult’s interpretation was described by Rob Barnett as more ‘fluid’ and expansive in the opening movement, while in the second, Boult set a faster tempo. 

In the opening bars of the Lento, there is an overwhelming sense of an other-worldliness with a mounting feeling of greatness as the music develops, especially on the violins, interrupted by a clock chiming slowly. In the transfer to the Allegro resoluto, Boult creates a passage of great moment before a delightful folk tune emerges against the stirring brass, then a vibrant melody is heard on the woodwind, followed by colourful expression by the brass before the solo violin opens a sequence of great beauty joined by the harp and woodwind and continued by the brass introducing an upbeat idea generating a mood of joy.

In the Lento, Boult summons up a grave mood in the orchestra, the strings announcing a great, noble idea and followed by the solo horn heard against hushed strings. This theme is reprised before the trumpet and the strings pick up an idea hinting of ancient church song which is heard first on the solo violin before the noble theme is reprised in a glorious passage on strings and the oboe invokes a quiet passage, accompanied by elegiac strings.

The tempo of the Scherzo is brisk and upbeat with a swirling theme on the violins and a chirpy idea on the woodwind hints of a colourful theme heard against the brass and closed by a reflective passage in the strings. In the Finale, the atmosphere is noble and graceful on the brass, woodwind and low strings, then the reprise of the old church theme leads to a momentous brass chorale followed by a solemn but brisk march suddenly threatening on the brass, before the reprise of the clock chimes heard in a magical passage on the strings and woodwind as if entering upon a new, enlightened world, the muted brass and solo violin creating a feeling of greatness and nobility, Finally, a brass chorale assisted by the strings closes this great work.

Boult premiered the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony on 16 January 1922; regrettably, the work remains the least performed of all RVW’s symphonies. As the composer wrote to his future wife, Ursula Wood, the symphony ‘is really war time music … it’s not really Lambkins frisking at all.’ In this recording, it is clear Boult believes in this work profoundly. In the opening Molto moderato, the woodwind are upbeat, and Boult emphasises the theme on the solo violin leading to the woodwind interplay of a gently flowing idea. The elegiac theme on the horn is picked up on the cor anglais and the movement closes on a beautiful idea on the strings.

In the slow movement, Lento Moderato, the main idea is announced on the solo horn, which is then played beautifully on the strings and wind, giving a moody idiom, and the natural trumpet plays a sad, reflective cadenza which is then reprised on the horn against the melodious violins. In the third movement, Moderato pesante, the strings introduce a dynamic theme, which turns upbeat on the brass, and exceedingly stirring in the whole orchestra - only the idiom is broken by the Trio opening by the horn, and the flute, and oboe in a magical passage. Finally, the glorious trumpet cadenza is reprised heroically by the orchestra; then comes a joyful, life-enhancing idea in the woodwind.

In the Lento, finale, the timpani announce the soprano voice which sings as if from another planet, with a passage of sombre beauty on the solo horn played against a plaintive idea on the strings, then buoyant horns and solo violin bring anxiety. Boult brings out the contrast between beauty and loss, heard first on the flute then on the harp, transporting the listener from tension to reflection and optimism in an upbeat brass section. Finally, the strings introduce a reprise of the soprano vocalise against high strings closing in great beauty and a mood of hope.

This release in the Vaughan Williams symphonies cycle is very welcome for its magnificent interpretation, performance and remastering into ambient stereo.

Gregor Tassie

Previous review: Ralph Moore

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