Symphony No.6 in E-minor
Three English Folk Songs (1912)
Symphony No.8 in D-minor
England, my England (1941)
Roderick Williams (baritone)
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Recorded at Watford Colosseum on 5 November 2019 (vocal works) and 21 & 22 September 2021
Reviewed by: David Gutman
Reviewed: November 2022
CD No: HYPERION CDA68396
Duration: 74 minutes
Two years ago I was much taken with Martyn Brabbins’s Fifth, perhaps the finest release yet in an ongoing Vaughan Williams cycle whose completion was put on hold during the pandemic. Music, interpretation, sound recording – everything came together even if, as I remarked at the time, Brabbins’s Vaughan Williams does tend to speak with a quiet voice. “Need that be a bad thing in these frenzied times? One hopes not!” That was then and this is now for although Hyperion’s latest instalment has been greeted with positive notices these luminous, elegant, dignified performances are scarcely the be-all and end-all.
It’s not as if there is only one way to bring off the extraordinary Sixth. Responding to the observations of Vaughan Williams himself, a surprisingly interventionist presence during recording sessions, Sir Adrian Boult was prepared for quite radical readjustments, making still more of that temporary blossoming near the end of the first movement in 1967 for HMV where once there had been little more than a motivic sleight of hand. The rabid urgency and restricted sonics of Boult’s first thoughts on shellac could scarcely be further from Brabbins’s unhurried poise as captured in wonderfully natural, slightly recessed sound. The producer is Andrew Keener, the sound engineer Simon Eadon (not quite what it says in the supporting documentation of which more anon). There is much to delight old VW hands in the clarification of previously unsuspected detail but, for me, the extremism of the piece is undersold, its raw nerves anesthetized. Thus when the argument alights on that ‘big tune’ the result is neither one thing nor the other. The second movement is impressive chiefly because the sound engineering conveys real depth of perspective with properly resonant bass frequencies, thunderous climaxes looming out of the shadows. The Scherzo is properly malign. Much of Antonio Pappano’s pacing is similar on a recent LSO Live disc made on the other side of the COVID hiatus in the uglifying acoustic of the Barbican Hall. Assisted by the band’s greater weight of sonority and perhaps even the cruder sonics, Pappano focuses the drama in a way much likelier to convince those unfamiliar with the work. Brabbins is quite measured in the Finale, every dynamic acutely observed, but its hushed intensity is more effectively conveyed at Pappano’s marginally slower tempo, to say nothing of Boult’s somnambulism in 1953 for Decca.
Few if any complaints about the Eighth except that Brabbins leaves the humour of the invention to speak for itself, putting me in mind of Mark Wigglesworth’s po-faced way with Shostakovich, Both can impress nevertheless and in this instance it helps that the various gongs and spiels of the Finale have never been so audible, the texture always transparent. The ‘Cavatina’ movement is most beautifully played too.
As throughout the cycle, the disc’s attractiveness for aficionados will be boosted by the inclusion of genuine rarities in lieu of more conventional makeweights. That said, non-cultists wedded to physical format are less likely to welcome the intrusive presence of three undistinguished folk-song settings for chorus and orchestra (probably dating from 1912). Small wonder the composer left ‘Tarry Trowsers’, ‘The Carter’ and ‘Ward the Pirate’ in a drawer. These four-square offerings are plonked between the main works so you’ll need a remote. Better is the ‘patriotic’ BBC commission setting W. E. Henley’s ‘England, my England’. Superficially Elgarian and not quite what you’d expect from a Left-leaning internationalist, it nonetheless has the spark of ‘real’ VW. Music and Letters in January 1942 drew attention to the “disposition and spacing of parts… transform[ing] the known into the arrestingly new.” For some reason this vintage morale-booster follows the Eighth without adequate pause. Roderick Williams, his diction as impressive as ever, joins the BBC Symphony Chorus and the BBCSO.
A curiously balanced collection then which Robert Matthew-Walker’s typically thoughtful booklet note attempts gallantly to bring together. He comes up with his own take on the Eighth, relating it to an indigenous fantastical vein linking A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Alice in Wonderland and the works of J. R. R. Tolkein. Regrettable then that his penultimate sentence on ‘England, my England’ appears to go along with the exceptionalist delusion that Britain ‘stood alone’ at the time Vaughan Williams completed it. Even discounting all those Polish airmen and the Anglo-Soviet agreement of July 1941, we seem to have forgotten the participation of the British empire and its commonwealth. ‘This was their finest hour.’ Hyperion’s art work is unrelated but not inapposite and the booklet is only difficult to read because so much is packed in to it, including full texts, orchestra personnel, artist bios and photographs.