VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 4. Symphony No. 5. The Wasps: Overture

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Symphony No. 4. Symphony No. 5. The Wasps: Overture – Ralph Vaughan Williams, cond; BBC SO (London, 10/11/1937); Sir John Barbirolli, cond; Hallé O (Manchester, 2/17/1944); Sir Henry Wood, cond; Queen’s Hall O (London, 4/22/1936) – AVID AMSC 599, mono (74:43)

The chief significance of this CD reissue of vintage Vaughan Williams performances is the composer-led rendition of the Fourth Symphony, arguably the greatest of his canon of nine, and certainly one of the greatest of all English symphonies. As wonderful as the Vaughan Williams symphonies are, in their diverse individual ways, the Fourth (1935) is the most classically symphonic, in direct lineage from Beethoven, following along after the Nielsen Fourth (1916). What is so notable about Vaughan Williams’ own launching of his Fourth on recording, two years after it was introduced, is the way that it highlights the work’s affinity to Beethoven (and we are talking about the driving, monomaniacal Fifth, rather than any of its more moderate brethren). Harsh, brusque, and aggressive are words one might use to characterize this performance, which concentrates intensely on the focused development of the few short motifs that permeate the work and comprise its basic materials. Subsequent conductors have been reluctant to follow Vaughan Williams’ own interpretive precedent (whose duration is 29:30), attempting instead to broaden the work and provide balance and relief from the relentless agitation and struggle. (As a point of comparison, Bryden Thomson with the LSO on Chandos lasts 33:28.) Only Paavo Berglund, whose magnificent performance with the Royal Philharmonic was released on LP in 1979 but has not (as far as I know) been reissued on CD, and, perhaps, Leonard Slatkin have sought to capture the same sort of single-minded ferocity. But listening to the composer’s own performance, whose sound quality is quite palatable on this transfer, and recalling the oft-quoted comment made by Vaughan Williams after the premiere–“I don’t know whether I like it, but it is what I meant.” — one cannot doubt that what he meant is what is heard here. No admirer of the work should be unfamiliar with this reading.

The two other selections on the disc have less to recommend them. If the composer’s own recording of his Fourth Symphony highlights its brusque vigor, Barbirolli’s 1944 recording of the Fifth — its first, I believe — lends a briskness that is altogether incongruous for the work, which the expert commentator Michael Kennedy has described as “an epitome of the contemplative side of Vaughan Williams’ muse,” and dubbed “Symphony of the Celestial City,” in reference to its treatment of material that also appears in the composer’s opera The Pilgrim’s Progress. I write as a great admirer of Barbirolli, many of whose performances of music by Vaughan Williams, Elgar, and others are for me definitive. But this reading suggests that perhaps he was not yet sufficiently comfortable with the work and lacked confidence that music of such sustained serenity would hold the attention of an audience. To quote Kennedy once more, “None of Vaughan Williams’ major works requires such polished playing as this symphony,” but that is not what the Hallé Orchestra was able to provide at this time. Furthermore, although it is the latest of the three recordings offered on this disc, it is also the poorest in quality of sound.

The overture to Vaughan Williams’ incidental music to The Wasps finds the composer in a warm and exuberantly lyrical vein, while displaying with a light touch the most deft craftsmanship. Played here under the direction of Sir Henry Wood, inaugurator of the London Promenade Concerts, the overture exudes an exhilarating fervor that is quite appealing. But the reading sounds awfully fast to me (and I usually favor tempos on the quick side), preventing the music from “breathing” comfortably and naturally.