Originally published on April 18
Although there is no shortage of Sir Adrian Boult conducting Vaughan Williams’s music – including two cycles of the Symphonies and four recordings of Job – there is still room for this ICA release of Symphonies 5 and 6, both from BBC Proms and therefore the Royal Albert Hall.
Few words are needed, for Sir Adrian, by then into his eighties, conducts two wonderful performances that enshrine a lifetime’s experience and wisdom regarding RVW’s music. The Fifth Symphony (August 4, 1975) glows with humanity and (second movement) sprites with glee. It’s a glorious rendition, caught on the wing, the very occasional ensemble glitch of no concern given the BBCSO’s dedicated and warm response and Boult’s wholesome approach: music-making that is at once indivisible, fully revealing, and emotionally intense.
If the composer intended his Fifth (dedicated to Sibelius) as a visionary corollary to World War II (first-performed in June 1943, VW replacing an ill Sir Henry Wood) – that there was hope across the horizon –, then his Sixth, coming soon after the cessation of hostilities (Boult leading the premiere), came as a shock to listeners, for it seems to reflect conflagration, ominous threat, sleaze and even nuclear fallout (all denied by VW). First and foremost, it’s a piece of great music, which on August 16, 1972, Sir Adrian unleashed with whiplash force, galumphing, and ‘big tune’ tracery and release, unflinching in impact and power, the second movement’s march-like sinister stealth is then graphically built, followed by a juggernaut of a Scherzo, offset by nightclub saxophone, collapsing into the pianissimo-throughout Finale, eerie, wispy, fading to nothingness. Compelling.
Aided by Paul Baily’s expert remastering, the stereo tapes sound great – dynamic and impactful – and these performances, which are much more than supplements to Boult’s official RVW discography, are to be treasured, ideal for the composer’s current 150th year, and also beyond it. An instructive booklet-note from Martin Cotton complements ICA Classics ICAC 5164, which is released on April 22.