VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Dona nobis pacem. Symphony No 4
Captured with thrilling fidelity by the microphones, Spano’s reading of the 1936 cantata Dona nobis pacem impresses by dint of its flawless discipline, unflappable poise and clear-headed thrust, in which respects it most closely resembles – you’ve guessed it! – Robert Shaw’s Telarc recording (11/98) with these same Atlanta forces. Enjoyable as it is, though, I do miss something of the the lofty sweep, characterful temperament and clinching authority of Boult’s 1973 traversal (EMI, 5/74) and (especially) Richard Hickox’s remarkably eloquent and blazingly intense LSO version from 20 years later (EMI British Composers, 12/93). Nor, it must be said, are Spano’s vocal soloists the equal of Hickox’s Yvonne Kenny and Bryn Terfel (the latter memorably sensitive and always illuminating in his delivery of Whitman’s illimitably compassionate ‘Reconciliation’).
Competition is, of course, tougher still in the confrontational F minor Symphony, and here too I find myself craving altogether greater emotional charge than Spano and company can muster. Granted, the orchestral playing boasts superlative coordination and beguiling sheen but tension levels are set a few notches too low for comfort, while the linked Scherzo and finale in particular are lacking in the necessary coiled energy and cumulative frenzy. The slow movement fares best, its central climax built and resolved with unerring skill, but interpretatively speaking Spano’s clean-cut Fourth doesn’t really compete alongside a whole host of rivals, among them VW himself and Barbirolli (electrifying, both, with the BBC SO from 1937 and 1950 respectively), Mitropoulos (with the NYPO from 1953 and 1956), Berglund (1/14), Handley (11/92), Haitink (5/98) and Oundjian (5/12). The symphony is followed (after rather too short a gap) by an uncommonly beautiful account of The Lark Ascending, which finds the ASO’s concertmaster, David Coucheron, on enviably secure and radiant form, and Spano drawing some ravishingly tender and hushed sounds from his silky band. Best try before you buy.