Originally published on May 22
Quite why the two Symphonies are not on one disc (total time, eighty-one minutes) is wondered at, but it’s good to have reissues of the wonderful Norfolk Rhapsody, Mark Elder nearly matching Boult’s EMI recording, which means that it’s first-class, and there’s a bouquet for the unnamed viola-player’s shapely and rich-toned contributions. The Lark Ascending is also welcome, a spacious and poetic reading with Lyn Fletcher as soloist (back in November 2005, she was the Hallé’s leader, only recently stepping down) and can be spoken of in the same breath as the classic version by Hugh Bean with Boult. And what superb sound from Simon Eadon for both, Andrew Keener producing.
Sinfonia antartica (Symphony 7, Hallé premiered in 1953, Barbirolli), derived from Vaughan Williams’s score for Scott of the Antarctic, http://www.colinscolumn.com/bbc-symphony-orchestra-at-barbican-centre-martyn-brabbins-conducts-vaughan-williamss-score-for-the-film-scott-of-the-antarctic/, receives an impressive outing (January 29, 2019), powerful and atmospheric, very well recorded by Steve Portnoi regarding dynamics (tremendous fortissimos, not least the huge climax with organ) and perspectives (eerie distant soprano, Sophie Bevan, and ladies of the Hallé Choir), the music’s suggestiveness fully wrought, an inhospitable/forbidding landscape (cued by a chilling wind machine), and moments of repose (the fourth-movement ‘Intermezzo’). Overall, Antartica, thanks to this absorbing performance, proves to be as musically worthy as VW’s eight other Symphonies.
The Ninth Symphony (November 15-17 last year) is also a winner, and puts in its place John Wilson’s recent concert performance, also with the Hallé, http://www.colinscolumn.com/halle-john-wilson-conducts-vaughan-williamss-ninth-symphony-holsts-the-planets-live-bbc-radio-3-broadcast/. It’s down to tempo; where Wilson rushed (as far as I am concerned), Elder is stoical and weighty (thirty-seven minutes overall*; Wilson several fewer) and finds the music’s strangeness (aided by a flugelhorn and a trio of saxophones), pain and passion; where Wilson was glib, Elder is significant, the music alive with emotion and sentiment, captured in immediate sound, Portnoi again. Sir Mark really digs deep into the potential of this Symphony and the result is compelling and illuminating, the Finale a dignified and deeply felt, also otherworldly and impassioned, farewell; again, Elder takes his time, to advantage, the music’s intensity reaching the red level.
I have long-known VW9 to be a masterpiece – first through Boult’s second recording (EMI), since then his first (Everest), and not forgetting an LPO concert performance (late in Sir Adrian’s life), and Slatkin (who restores the manuscript’s cymbal clashes in the ultimate coda, so does Elder, but I believe that now a new publication includes them) and this Hallé version also has a conviction that leaves no doubt. The Ninth fooled some doubting critics back then, April 1958, if not Michael Kennedy, and here it triumphs.
However, we are not done: I now await, with the keenest anticipation (that could be a pun), the rest of Martyn Brabbins’s VW cycle for Hyperion, Symphonies 6-9, all recorded, and due for release soon.
Meanwhile, Hallé CD HLD 7558 (2 CDs) is released on June 3.
Symphony No.7: https://orcd.co/1jlxkbr
Symphony No.9: https://orcd.co/m9q80qw
*Please see second Comment
There are one or two rather odd things about the music for Scott of the Antarctic and the Sinfonia Antartica. Ealing Studios decided to make a film about Scott’s doomed last expedition towards the end of 1944, and Ernest Irving, the Company’s music director, contacted RVW to see if he was interested in writing the film score..
He was – and without any script (it had not been written) or storyboard, in 1945 and 1946 set about writing the music. By the time the film went into production in 1947, Irving had been astonished to receive no less than 18 minutes’ continuous orchestral music from RVW on the subject, virtually all of which was incorporated into the sound-track (anyone who has actually seen the finished film will know that not all the music used is by Vaughan Williams).
It follows, therefore, that the story of human endeavour against overwhelming odds had truly inspired RVW , and he had begun to put down a substantial series of ideas, themes and their dramatic workings long before filming had started. With this over-riding fact, I am convinced that RVW already had a symphonic work based on the failure of human endeavour pretty firmly planted in his mind at least from about 1945, when the 18-minutes’ of music, used in both the film and the Sinfonia Antartica, was first put down. What makes this truly fascinating is the fact that he was already working on another Symphony from about 1944 – the Sixth, in E minor, which was (for the sake of argument) finished in 1947, and whose last movement is often (in my view erroneously) taken as the ne plus ultra of musical nihilism – foreshadowing that of the failure of Scott’s expedition. Analysis demonstrates that the Sixth is utterly organic, virtually from first note to last: it is not that too-easy a view to assume the Epilogue of the Sixth is nihilistic – at the conclusion of the Sixth we observe, but do not participate. The final pizzicato rhythmic figure, deep in cellos and double-basses, is identical to that from the slow movement, a falling semitone marking the mediant of E major – and, enharmonically, also of F minor – acknowledging that unresolved conflict which set the entire work in motion.
In the Antartica music, the expression is more direct, as the conclusion of the human endeavour which first inspired the music eight years earlier is known from the beginning: the Antartica, therefore, is a study, not as some kind of musical travelogue, but more a British equivalent of the Alpine Symphony – as valid a subject for any artist to undertake, which moves us by the expressive humanity of the music. At the end of the Antartica, the conflict is resolved, symphonically.
“The symphony is in four movements. Timings in performance vary considerably: at the premiere Sargent and the Royal Philharmonic took 30m 25s, which is nearer than most subsequent performances on record to the composer’s metronome markings, but is felt by some critics to be too fast in places. In preparation for the first commercial recording of the work in August 1958, Sir Adrian Boult discussed the tempo of the last movement with Vaughan Williams, who told him he could play it “a good deal slower” if he wished. Timings of studio recordings of the work have ranged from 29m 45s (Kees Bakels, 1996) to 38m 30 (André Previn, 1971), with 34 minutes or so a more typical duration.” (Wiki)
Thanks, Colin – that is a really important point about the (revised) tempo for the first movement of No 9 – pretty much an ‘as you wish’ comment by VW – so typical of him, although he never heard it ‘a good deal slower’ in live performance. Seems it will always be a great unknown – but it comes down to ‘does the music make convincing symphonic sense at whatever tempo the conductor prefers?’
I found this release the most disappointing of an uneven cycle, in particular the Sinfonia Antarctica. The Scherzo lacked character and was far too slow. The penguins were almost comatose! But the killer blow that takes it completely out of the running was the entrance of the organ at the end of the third movement. If they recorded the symphony in Manchester the organ was being played in Liverpool. It is a catastrophic error in balance where the organ utterly fails to impact at all. Just listen to Boult’s stereo recording or Slatkin with the Philharmonia to hear how this moment should sound and quite how awful this new recording is.
Symphony No 9 is an improvement but still fails to compete with the best recordings (Stereo Boult, Slatkin and Handley). I am astonished this recording has been BBC Record Review’s recording of the week.
Thanks Mr Goode for your interesting point of view. The organ sounds great in Antartica (please note spelling, no first c) especially on headphones. I am glad to have all the recordings, and others, that you mention of No.9: there are two stereos from Boult, Everest and HMV, and I heard him conduct VW9 in the RFH with the LPO late in his life, a concert he shared with a young Simon Rattle who conducted Berlioz’s Corsaire Overture and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.1 with Peter Katin. Colin