Symphony No.5 in D
Dona nobis pacem
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Ralph Vaughan Williams [Symphony]
Renée Flynn (soprano)
Roy Henderson (baritone)
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Symphony broadcast from the Royal Albert Hall, London, on 3 September 1952; Dona nobis pacem performed in BBC Studios, London, November 1936
Reviewed by: Peter Joelson
Reviewed: January 2008
CD No: SOMM CÉLESTE
Duration: 72 minutes
This remarkable release revealing Ralph Vaughan Williams as conductor of his own music contains the “first authorised release” of “Dona nobis pacem” and the “premier CD release” of his Fifth Symphony. Very little survives of Vaughan Williams the conductor: three commercial recordings of his own works (including Symphony No.4) to which are added the two broadcasts contained on this Somm release as well as Bach’s “St Matthew Passion” recorded at Leith Hill in 1958, five months before Vaughan Williams’s death.
“Dona nobis pacem” was written for the Huddersfield Choral Society’s centenary (in 1937) and given its first performance the previous October with Renée Flynn, Roy Henderson, the Huddersfield Choral Society and Hallé Orchestra. Albert Coates conducted. The recording here, the first broadcast performance, dates from the following month, perhaps to coincide with Remembrance Sunday, and survives in very good sound.
Inspired by his service during the First World War, and by Verdi’s “Requiem” with its brass fanfares and semitone drops on “dona”, Vaughan Williams’s cantata, with its setting of Latin liturgy, poetry by Walt Whitman, and its ethos of reconciliation, perhaps inspired Britten’s writing of “War Requiem” a quarter of a century later. During the period of rearmament for the Second World War, the work received many performances, and its strength remains powerful. The opening, with the soprano’s desperate cry for peace, is arresting. The relentless distant trudge of war transforms into ‘Beat! Beat! Drums’ based, as are the following sections, on Whitman’s poem “Drum Taps”, which was written after his experience as a nurse in the American Civil War. In ‘Reconciliation’ the mood alters to one of a lullaby. ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’ has the Moon as the mother watching over the funeral of her husband and son, both killed at the same time, describing how war decimates generations of a family. ‘The Angel of Death’ is based on the speech made by John Bright in the House of Commons during the Crimean War, in which, as in the American Civil War, 600,000 people perished. Finally Vaughan Williams sets wise words from the Bible urging peace, the return of the soprano’s plea anxiously lets the listener realise that this call must be listened to at all costs.
The composer secures a very fine, if dated-sounding, performance, one which focuses on the whole without spotlighting incidentals at the expense of structure. Previously available on Pearl – in 1989 when the recording was already out of copyright – one wonders who has now made this release official?
As in the cantata, Vaughan Williams’s reading of his Fifth Symphony has the same great strength due to his command of structure. It is a beautiful performance, given as part of the celebrations of his 80th-birthday. This wasn’t his first performance of this work at the BBC Proms; the photograph on the back of the booklet is of him conducting the premiere in the Royal Albert Hall on 24 June 1943.
Regarding this 1952 account (applause not retained), in his booklet note, Alan Sanders tells how a violist remarked that even hardened members of the London Philharmonic “felt a particular magic about the performance”, and that a member of the audience noted the composer seemed to be doing very little but nevertheless “inspired playing of extraordinary eloquence and commitment.” Sanders goes on to quote an unnamed Vaughan Williams scholar as declaring this to be “the best recorded performance of any Vaughan Williams symphony”. It is certainly very impressive.
Preparation for CD release has involved a certain amount of processing; the amount of noise-removal can raise hackles. Some listeners cannot abide swishes, hiss and crackle; others feel robbed if higher frequencies are tamed or bass lines are contaminated. In this particular case, the sound is rather like that received from an AM/MW wireless of the early 1950s, with a very steep cut made on the treble.
The preserved recording came about due to a talented engineer, Eric Spain, who built a machine that could record broadcasts onto long-playing acetate discs. Arthur Ridgewell, the producer of Somm’s release, had asked Spain to record the Prom. We are informed that the transfer was taken straight from those acetates. Furthermore, it is asserted that this recording is not one of the copies privately circulated of a recording now seemingly discredited as not conducted by Vaughan Williams. After some queries on RMCR (rec.music.classical.recordings), an on-line discussion board about classical records, by members who thought that they already possessed this Somm-issued recording, I decided to investigate the matter further.
Two members in the United States, Don Tait and Bill Anderson, had already ordered copies of Somm’s CD and, in advance, I sent an extract of the third-movement ‘Romanza’ so that comparisons could be made. Tait had first heard a recording, said to be of the composer conducting the Fifth, in 1969 or 1970 and acquired a copy of the now-on-Somm performance six or so years ago from one origin, as did Anderson, and Aaron Z. Snyder was given his copy by another. Anderson compared his CD-R with Somm’s issue using frequency spectrum analysis. The two recordings are in fact identical.
The immediate questions are:
Curiously, the copy that had been circulating in the United States is missing the first 13 seconds (or thereabouts) of the third movement. My only concern listening to Somm’s disc was of the curious sound in the opening bars or so of this movement, which gives the impression of being patched. There are also splices, seemingly, in the area of 20-plus seconds The question now is: was there some damage to the original acetates, or did a change of discs result in Spain not capturing the start of the ‘Romanza’ and, if so, how has Ridgewell filled in the gap at the start?
To make a playable copy of the ‘Romanza’, Bill Anderson – please click on the link below to read his analysis – made an effective splice from Sir Adrian Boult’s early-1950s’ Decca recording, while Snyder, who restores material for Music & Arts, for his copy, rebuilt the missing bars from material already on the recording. The restorations are very impressive. Snyder’s has more of the higher frequencies intact than Somm’s. Some, though, will prefer the warmer and less-noisy Somm.
All of this aside, Vaughan Williams’s conducting of both these pieces deserves to be heard. “Dona nobis pacem”, an excellent performance, is also available on Pearl (unofficially it now seems!) and the Fifth Symphony is outstanding. Somm’s release is extremely important. I am very grateful to Aaron Z. Snyder, Bill Anderson and Don Tait for all the valuable information, assistance and advice given during the preparation of this review.