Andrew Davis conducts Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia Antartica, Concerto for Two Pianos, and Four Last Songs [Mari Eriksmoen; Hélène Mercier & Louis Lortie; Roderick Williams; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra; Chandos]

5 of 5 stars

Vaughan Williams
Sinfonia Antartica (Symphony No.7)
Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra
Vaughan Williams, orch. Anthony Payne
Four Last Songs

Mari Eriksmoen (soprano)

Hélène Mercier & Louis Lortie (pianos)

Roderick Williams (baritone)

Edvard Grieg Kor
Bergen Philharmonic Choir

Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis

Recorded 30 January-2 February 2017 in Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway

Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker

Reviewed: October 2017
Duration: 78 minutes



Recently, writing for Classical Source, I gave the strongest recommendation to a recording of Vaughan Williams’s Fourth and Sixth Symphonies by the Hallé under Sir Mark Elder. Now comes an equally outstanding disc of two broadly contemporaneous masterpieces by the composer, with the first recording of an orchestral version of what was posthumously published as Vaughan Williams’s Four Last Songs.

Somewhat paradoxically taking this last item first, one has to say that it is only in the original versions with piano that one can regard these songs in any way as approximating to a set. They were not intended to be heard together, for they are all the composer left from two unfinished song-cycles; in addition, it was clear – certainly as far as the composer’s widow was concerned – that they were intended for female voice, not male, and although she attended and gave her blessing to the first recording of the songs, with baritone, and supplied the liner notes, she was never wholly satisfied that her husband’s original intentions were met by a male voice.

As, together, these four songs play for less than ten minutes, they are not – in any version – comparable with Richard Strauss’s similarly posthumously-entitled late masterpiece, and although Anthony Payne has provided discreet orchestration the essential intimacy (especially in the third song, ‘Hands, eyes, and heart’) of each of these texts is diluted.

Nonetheless, it is probably worth having a recording of Payne’s orchestrated versions, in which case the performances on this disc cannot be improved upon. Roderick Williams is exemplary, each word crystal-clear as he retains the incomparable gift of personification which lies at the heart of great Lieder singing. Andrew Davis and the Bergen Philharmonic are equally exemplary.

One has to remind oneself that the orchestra on this disc is not British, but the result is another (perhaps all too rare) example of the universality of Vaughan Williams’s greatest works, despite – in the case of Sinfonia Antartica – the coincidental stiff-upper-lip nature of the British tragedy which was the initial inspiration of the work.

It arose from the music Vaughan Williams composed for the outstanding 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic, telling the story of Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated expedition to locate the South Pole in 1910-12. In the event, Scott was beaten to it by the Norwegian explorer Amundsen, and Scott’s team perished on the return to base camp.

At the heart of the simple facts of this tragic story lies the indomitable spirit of human endeavour, and in the wake of the post-war triumph of the defeat of Nazism, here was the obverse of the coin: “To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite” – as the first of the five superscriptions (this, from Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound) which head each of the Sinfonia’s five movements has it – the contemplation of failure, which paradoxically carries its own inspiring message.

The Scott story, and its telling in this great film, must have made a profound impact on the composer (who would certainly have remembered the event when it happened), for the result was the Sinfonia Antartica, first performed in January 1953 in Manchester by the Hallé Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli.

At that time, Vaughan Williams did not number his Symphonies; his scores (and their first publication) referred to them solely by key (or, in this case, by name) but it was when the D-minor Symphony of 1956 appeared that he was persuaded to number them officially (record companies had been jumping the gun in this matter for some time beforehand), when it was pointed out to him that the later work might be confused with the D-major Fifth Symphony.

So it was when he termed his D-minor Symphony as No.8 that the world at large realised that Vaughan Williams regarded Sinfonia Antartica as No.7 – thereby raising the stature of a work that had, at its first performances, caused no little uncertainty – was it a true Symphony, or should it be considered an English equivalent of Strauss’s Alpine Symphony – a musical travelogue, rather than an organic score?

Quite apart from the wholly misleading implications of those opinions which were current when the Antartica appeared (reinforced by the soon-to-be-released recordings of Barbirolli, HMV, and Boult, Decca) – misleading to both Vaughan Williams and Richard Strauss – the publication of the Antartica’s score with its superscriptions added another uncertainty: although they were not spoken at the premiere, nor do they appear on Barbirolli’s recording, Sir John Gielgud spoke the superscriptions on the Decca recording. Vaughan Williams was present at the Decca sessions, implying approval that the words should be spoken during a performance: however, the printed score shows something quite different – the music is continuous, and no additional ‘time’ is allowed in the music for a speaker.

Quite apart from anything else, if the work is played continuously, as written and as published (and as Vaughan Williams had shown in his Sixth Symphony, coincidentally contemporaneous with the release of the film), the musical structure and emotional impact of the Antartica proceed uninterruptedly to its profound conclusion.

One final point, which is still current amongst superficial commentators on this work, is that by no means all of the material in the Sinfonia Antartica came from the film score – and not all the music heard in Scott of the Antarctic was composed by Vaughan Williams.

Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia Antartica is, in fact, a five-movement continuous Symphony in E-flat minor. It is another of the composer’s utterly original masterpieces, which, once the excretions of film, superscriptions and travel music are consigned to the waste-bin of musical commentary, demonstrates the creative genius of his contribution to twentieth-century symphonism as do each of his eight other works in the genre.

As a continuous structure, the Antartica poses many problems for a conductor – and not only in organic cohesion of tempos and emotional balance – for the score calls for female voices (soprano and choir), ideally placed a little way apart from the orchestra (not so distant as in Holst’s ‘Neptune’), as well as an organ, so the balance between orchestra, organ and singers has to be finely judged if the true impact of this work is to be revealed.

Thankfully, a commercial recording enables those demands to be more readily met, and it is a measure of the excellence of Chandos’s vastly experienced team that this version of the Symphony is the finest recording of the score I have heard. It helps to have the acoustically fine Grieghallen in Bergen, but more than that is required – and is achieved here.

Yet no recording per se can be recommended if the performance it captures is less than acceptable, and I have to say that Andrew Davis’s command is total; if I felt his opening tempo was a shade too fast, as the first movement proceeds and as the rest of the Symphony unfurls, its inherent organic unity becomes apparent: here, in those profound opening pages, is no premonition of human failure; this is endeavour, expressed in universal musical terms.

So one is drawn into this unique conception, unique soundworld and uniquely living organism, for the music grows and develops from within. Here is genuinely symphonic writing by a great master – wide-ranging and open in its simple humanity, a universal message so powerfully and movingly recreated by this fine orchestra and singers under a wholly exceptional conductor.

If this is the one version of the Antartica which should occupy a place in your library, it is equalled by a simply outstandingly revelatory account of Vaughan Williams’s Two-Piano Concerto – another of his masterpieces which has suffered from too many misunderstandings over the years.

Indeed, I can well believe this account will go a very long way to establish this work as one of the composer’s greatest achievements for the concert hall: this is an internationally significant work which, like the Antartica, has tended to suffer from a rather too-homespun reputation. The work began life as a Concerto for piano – in which form it still exists – but the pianist for whom it was written, Harriet Cohen, had small hands, so that Vaughan Williams’s demanding writing meant that she could not do the work full justice, especially in the fugal Finale. In addition, the nature of the Concerto – a precursor, in many ways, of the Fourth Symphony, parts of the ballet Job and the cantata Dona nobis pacem – did not (indeed, still does not) lend itself to immediate popular acceptance.

A dozen years or so after it first appeared, Vaughan Williams decided to recast the work for two pianos and orchestra, in which task he was assisted by Joseph Cooper. The implication that the composer needed ‘help’ to rewrite the work in this form led to this version being considered in some quarters as not being quite 100-percent – and as the intended recipients, Cyril Smith and Phyllis Sellick, were not wholly enamoured of the music led to the Concerto becoming neglected once more.

Until now. This performance is simply magnificent. I found it utterly compelling and so true to the inherently fiery and concentrated rigour of the music that it was like hearing a masterpiece for the first time – as, indeed, in my case it was. I have no doubt that this Concerto, in the Two-Piano version, is one of the composer’s great works – an astonishing conception, the more so in the concluding part of the Finale, wherein the nature of the music changes so completely that it feels one is listening to another work entirely, only after which does it feel that this mood of acceptance has been behind the music all along, hidden by the intensity of the musical foreground.

It is a breathtaking achievement as a work of art, and I can only urge those unfamiliar with the piece to seek it out forthwith – but only in this landmark recording in the Vaughan Williams discography. The committed nature of the playing of Louis Lortie and Hélène Mercier, and of the Bergen Philharmonic under Andrew Davis, is beyond criticism.

In mentioning rewritten works, and noting that this recording was subsidised in part by the Grieg Foundation of Norway, might I make a plea for a recording of the orchestral song-cycle Grieg put together in 1894, preferably sung by Mari Eriksmoen. A coupling of Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer with Richard Strauss’s Four Songs with orchestra, Opus 33 (1896), would be more than worthwhile.

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