Vaughan Williams
The Nine Symphonies
Isobel Baillie (soprano), John Cameron (baritone) & London Philharmonic Choir [A Sea Symphony]

Margaret Ritchie (soprano) [A Pastoral Symphony]

Margaret Ritchie (soprano), John Gielgud (speaker) & London Philharmonic Choir [Sinfonia antartica]


London Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Adrian Boult


Recorded between 1952-1956 (Symphonies 1-8; Decca) & 1958 (Symphony No.9; Everest)
CD No: DECCA 473 241-2 (5 CDs)
Duration:
Reviewed: November 2002
A neat package, with full notes by Michael Kennedy, offering Vaughan Williams’s nine symphonies as Sir Adrian Boult’s first complete cycle is returned as an integral package – No.9 was recorded for Everest rather than Decca, so it’s good to have them all together. What’s also nice is having Vaughan Williams himself address the London Philharmonic to thank them for the recording of the Sixth Symphony – “a wonderful experience” – and Boult’s introduction to the Ninth, the symphony recorded on the day of VW’s death. The Ninth, still an underrated masterpiece, is a work of remembrance and vision, hypnotically coloured by three saxophones and the haunting sound of the flugelhorn; the thunderous then receding final bars not only speak of ’last things’ but of an unknown future. This performance chills to the marrow.
Commentators will argue on the relative merits of Boult’s two complete cycles, the other being the later one for EMI (5 73924 2, 8 CDs, which includes various additional orchestral works). I would opt for the later recordings – and not because they are stereo – maybe because I learnt this wonderful music from those versions. With integrals from Handley, Slatkin and Haitink, and Previn if RCA ever restore his LSO interpretations, there is plenty of choice. That said, Boult’s 1950s’ recordings are indispensable for our understanding of this music.
There’s a thrilling account of the Walt Whitman settings that comprise A Sea Symphony. Isobel Baillie is something of an acquired taste, but John Cameron is splendid. Neither the town and country symphonies are pictorial evocations – A London Symphony is certainly evocative but VW the socialist also shows the city’s harsh side; A Pastoral Symphony is a poignant lament for those lost on the battlefields of France. The latter is coupled with No.5 – although No.6 is the logical pairing: these are the memorial-symphonies for the two World Wars. In the ’Pastoral’, how expertly Boult allows the idyllic atmosphere to burgeon before darker and lamenting material is introduced. I don’t know a greater musical tribute to the fallen; the threnody that emerges from the distant soprano in the last movement is heart-rending. The Fifth’s cathedral-like edifices (dedicated to Sibelius “without permission” are not allowed to wallow).
The presage – or maybe not – of war does seem to be part of the Fourth’s heroism and striving, which contrasts with the static Sibelius-like slow movement. Boult’s trenchancy ensures that there is nothing ’easy’ about this symphony’s grim traversal, music that has travelled well as Berglund, Slatkin and Bernstein have shown (I’m less keen on Mitropoulos). Boult is a measured guide through the ravages of the Sixth, its monolithic slow movement, wild and bluesy scherzo and the nuclear-devastation of the ’Finale’.
John Gielgud’s wonderful voice and enunciation are maybe too Shakespearean for Captain Scott’s journal readings that herald each of the five movements of Sinfonia Antartica (which the composer couldn’t spell!). Originally film music, VW conjures frozen expanses and fear with great certainty. The Eighth Symphony is a jewel. As John Carewe has noted, the first movement variations (without a theme) is one of the composer’s finest creations, exhaustively organised, and easy to underestimate. The sprightly wind-only ’Scherzo’, the beautiful ’Cavatina’ for strings, and the exotic percussion of the ’Finale’ form one of the composer’s most pleasurable works.
The re-mastering has been very expertly achieved. Mono the sound might be, excepting symphonies 8 & 9, but there’s little that is restricted: the large forces needed for A Sea Symphony are well conveyed with plenty of glint and heft, and the ’London’ (the first to be recorded, in January 1952), which has sounded rough in previous issues, is remarkably improved.
The merits of all Boult’s VW recordings can be debated and full discussion can be made of rival sets and those symphonies that Barbirolli and others have recorded outside of complete cycles. While the 1950s’ LPO doesn’t always play with the last degree of virtuosity and elan, Boult’s authority in this music sweeps all before it. This set, then, is a must and this is its best presentation yet – and is recommended without reservation.

 

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