Vaughan Williams Complete Symphonies

A welcome first complete assemblage for Boult’s vintage 1950s VW symphony cycle

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

In its previous incarnation on Belart (6/97), Sir Adrian Boult’s authoritative Vaughan Williams cycle with the LPO from the 1950s lacked only the impressive world première recording of the Ninth Symphony which that same partnership set down for Everest in August 1958 (the composer had died just seven hours prior to those Walthamstow sessions, a fact movingly acknowledged in Sir Adrian’s brief spoken introduction). Now Decca have done the sensible thing and licensed that historic document for inclusion within the present five-CD set (where it shares a disc with A London Symphony, No 2). Packaging is a good deal slimmer than before, and the booklet contains a succinct essay by Michael Kennedy.

I’ve long sung the praises of these intense performances, which display a commitment and understanding that far outweigh any technical shortcomings (the LPO of the period was not always in the best of corporate health). To my mind, Boult’s gloriously clear-sighted 1953 account of No 1, A Sea Symphony, remains the interpretative touchstone (the ambitious finale in particular has never been more tautly or profoundly surveyed), while the London continues to strike me as a model of cogency and fervour.

Both the Pastoral (No 3) and Fifth possess towering qualities, the latter especially displaying an unflustered ‘wholeness’ and rapt dedication that touch to the very core. Much the same goes for the Sixth and Sinfonia antartica (No 7), whereas the Fourth and (stereo) Eighth fall shorter on grip and composure. The awesome Ninth, on the other hand, receives thoroughly stirring advocacy, even if there’s occasionally a hint of all involved ‘feeling their way’ by the side of recordings under Handley or Haitink.

Comparative listening with Decca’s own admirable earlier transfers of Symphonies Nos 1-3, 5, 7 and 8 reveals a more obtrusive level of background hiss, less congenial string timbre and thinner bass on these new 96kHz remasterings. Conversely, the pairing of Nos 4 and 6 sounds infinitely more palatable than its botched Belart equivalent. The Ninth, too, comes up with much the same remarkable realism here as it did on the original Everest CD – coupled to Arnold’s Third Symphony (4/95 – nla). Swings and roundabouts, then. Still, I wouldn’t want my sonic reservations to deter anyone from investigating some cherishable music-making.

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