VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Symphonies Nos 4 & 6
The fifth instalment in Mark Elder’s Vaughan Williams symphony cycle launches with a strikingly lithe, poised and painstakingly prepared reading of the Sixth, culminating in a superbly controlled, raptly questing Epilogue which (for once) unfolds at a true pianissimo throughout. Elsewhere, the Scherzo has contrapuntal and rhythmic acuity in its favour – although the Trio’s glowering reprise at fig 39 (5'29") doesn’t chill to the marrow as it can. Nor does the first movement’s opening maelstrom register with ideally elemental force and fury, while the Hallé strings are lacking something in sheer breadth of tone for the secondary material’s final full flowering from one after fig 15 (6'24"). The ensuing Moderato, too, falls just a little short in terms of ratcheting tension and remorseless tread (Elder takes it at a swifter tempo than some might like).
Overall, one admires without being truly swept away – an observation that extends to this new Fourth. Again, the orchestral playing cannot be faulted in terms of discipline and composure – and the recording team have struck a commendably judicious balance within Bridgewater Hall – but, for all the scrupulous attention to detail, Elder’s conception falls just a little short in terms of craggy power and cumulative thrust. Certainly, I crave an altogether more expectant ppp hush at the start of that Beethovenian transition into the finale, whose minatory epilogo fugato should surely harrow the senses more than it does here. On the plus side, Elder’s lavish care pays particularly handsome dividends in the first movement’s haunted Lento coda and the same material’s devastatingly inevitable return at fig 13 (2'48") in the finale. The slow movement, too, is extremely fine (the numerous cantabile markings tastefully observed – and a special word of praise for the sensitive flute solo at the close).
Very impressive in parts, then, but not quite the whole story. My own long-standing loyalty to Boult (his mono versions for Decca), Handley (with the RLPO) and Haitink (both EMI/Warner) remains unchallenged. And don’t overlook, either, those unforgettably incendiary Fourths under the composer (Naxos) and Barbirolli (Barbirolli Society), as well as Andrew Davis’s exceptionally penetrating Sixth (Warner) – all with the BBC SO on blistering form.