Vaughan Williams Complete Symphonies

A welcome return for Previn’s much-loved if frustratingly variable VW survey for RCA

Author: 
Andrew Achenbach

Vaughan Williams Complete Symphonies

  • Symphony No. 1, '(A) Sea Symphony'
  • Symphony No. 2, '(A) London Symphony'
  • Symphony No. 3, '(A) Pastoral Symphony'
  • Symphony No. 4
  • Symphony No. 5
  • Symphony No. 6
  • Symphony No. 7, 'Sinfonia antartica'
  • Symphony No. 8
  • Symphony No. 9
  • Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, 'Concerto accad
  • (The) Wasps, Overture
  • (The) England of Elizabeth, Explorer
  • (The) England of Elizabeth, Poet
  • (The) England of Elizabeth, Queen
  • Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra

Set down between 1967 and 1972, Previn’s Vaughan Williams series with the LSO not only played a crucial part in disseminating this symphonic odyssey to a wider audience but also paved the way for other non-British conductors. RCA’s latest transfers can’t always disguise the fact that the tapes are now more than three decades old, but the finest productions here – of Nos 2, 3, 5 and 9 especially – retain a lustrous glow characteristic of the late Kenneth Wilkinson’s best work in London’s Kingsway Hall.

Previn’s inspirational Pastoral, No 3, and Fifth are available as part of a double-pack from French BMG and I’ve sung their praises many times before (most recently 11/03). Certainly, his sleepier RPO/Telarc digital remake of No 5 generates nothing like the same expressive charge. His 1972 London also has a rapt intensity and a spontaneity that never palls. A somewhat slack-reined ‘Cavatina’ notwithstanding, the Eighth comes off well, as does the elusive Ninth.

It’s not all good news, however. I hadn’t dug out Previn’s A Sea Symphony for a number of years and was troubled by its lack of ambition or rigour (the awesome finale in particular needs a firmer hand). Likewise, a small-scale literalness takes the shine off the Sinfonia antartica (where Sir Ralph Richardson’s spoken superscriptions may bother some listeners more than they do me). Least convincing are Nos 4 and 6, the Fourth in particular a laboured, hectoring affair; both are deficient in long-term control next to distinguished accounts from Handley and Haitink.

As for the fill-ups, the Wasps Overture is a delight, as is John Fletcher’s deft account of the underrated Tuba Concerto (never previously released on CD and a performance to set beside former LSO principal Philip Catelinet’s pioneering recording with Barbirolli, 11/98). I can take or leave the ‘Three Portraits’ from The England of Elizabeth, though they’re charismatically done here. A proficient if not penetrating Violin Concerto (with James Buswell an assured soloist) rounds off an uneven set.

Good as it is to have this famous series restored to currency, anyone on the hunt for a bargain VW cycle would do better to invest in Handley’s altogether more consistently inspired RLPO set on CfP – but do try and hear Previn’s London, Pastoral and Fifth, if you haven’t already done so.

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© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2018