Vaughan Williams Symphonies Nos 3 & 4
Thought-provoking interpretations of great dedication and intelligence. If Haitink’s deeply felt conception of A Pastoral Symphony is the most daringly broad we’ve yet had on disc, its concentration and abundant character grip from first measure to last. Aided by orchestral playing of the highest quality, the opening movement unfolds with a luminous serenity, its climaxes unerringly ‘placed’, yet Haitink is also acutely aware of the ominous stirrings just beneath the surface – listen, for example, to the ghostly patina created by sul ponticello lower strings from 5'53''. I can’t recall a more nobly elegiac realization of the ensuing Lento moderato, and Haitink invests the ineffably poignant finale with an awesome inexorability (and what handsome reserves of sostenuto tone he draws from the LPO throughout). Most distinctive of all is the Moderato pesante third movement which, as Haitink views it, is a monumentally sombre, even intimidating affair. Here, as elsewhere, the great Dutch maestro brings out countless imaginative touches within VW’s orchestration: the unnerving rasp of clarinets playing at the very top of their range at the first fortissimo climax from 0'46'', or the superb tuba writing between 5'11'' and 5'26'' as tensions subside for that magical, light-as-thistledown coda. While not ousting either Previn’s sensuous, very Ravelian LSO recording or Handley’s wonderfully lucid Liverpool account as my preferred versions, Haitink’s remains an interpretation of compelling individuality and tragic intensity which all VW aficionados should investigate forthwith.
The same holds true for the Fourth. Again, Haitink presides over a performance of immense integrity and perceptive long-term rigour. Speeds here are less controversial. By not driving the first movement too hard, Haitink ensures that we can savour the full expressive eloquence of the strings’ appassionato sostenuto secondary idea (not to mention the fabulous cantabile cello and bass counterpoint which appears soon after). The implacable tread of the slow movement put me in mind of another Fourth Symphony, that of Sibelius (has Haitink any plans, I wonder, to give us his thoughts on the Finnish master?) and the flute solo at the close really does chill to the marrow. What’s more, the scherzo possesses fine rhythmic point, and the transition into the finale generates a tremendous expectancy. In this last movement Haitink keeps a firm hand on the tiller and steadfastly refuses to whip up any artificial excitement: textures never clot and the cumulative thrust of the fugal epilogue is as satisfyingly cogent as I can ever recall. For some, this will be too civilized and unconfrontational a reading (no one has ever matched VW’s own 1937 recording for sheer animal energy), but its rugged symphonic strength must surely command enormous respect.
Airy, bloom-laden sound, if not quite as spectacularly well defined as Slatkin’s identical RCA coupling with the Philharmonia (recorded in the same Watford venue).'