Vaughan Williams Symphony No 6; In the Fen Country; OnWenlock Edge
Bernard Haitink’s intensely stimulating Vaughan Williams symphony cycle continues apace with this noble, rewarding and (above all) profoundly musical account of the Sixth. Drawing some magnificently clean and sonorous playing from the LPO (and aided by a ripe and wide-ranging sound picture from the EMI engineers), Haitink steers a characteristically purposeful course through the first movement, alighting on precisely the right tempo for the second subject’s final ecstatic (and here affectingly dignified) metamorphosis. Right from the outset, one notes how the supreme articulation of the orchestral playing helps to make so much sense of VW’s trenchant counterpoint. What’s more, for all Haitink’s meticulous adherence to the letter of the score, the results are markedly less pristine and self-conscious than on Norrington’s otherwise impressive Decca version with this same band.
However, it’s in the succeeding Moderato that the Dutchman really pulls ahead of most of his rivals, his eloquent conception displaying a riveting long-term rigour which in recent times has only been surpassed by Handley’s RLPO reading (the monstrous fff climax resounds with a truly ineluctable cumulative impact). In the Scherzo, one can again only marvel at how the sumptuous assurance of the LPO’s response never threatens to compromise the muscular grit of VW’s argument; and listen to how much power Haitink holds in reserve for the saxophone melody’s terrifying reprise at fig. 39 or 5'04'', whose organ-like sonorities seem to hark back to that astounding passage in scene 6 of Job when the heavens open to reveal Satan sitting on God’s throne. No complaints, either, about the implacable mystery and tingling concentration of Haitink’s epilogue (superbly seamless legato work from pianissimo trombones and trumpets between figs. 5 and 7, 4'23'' to 5'41''). Perhaps in those visionary closing bars Haitink doesn’t quite distil the same level of awesome contemplation that Handley certainly does. Otherwise, a distinguished Sixth, and one which deserves to rank alongside the finest currently available.
It’s difficult to imagine a more refined, sympathetic rendering of In the Fen Country than Haitink’s, VW’s early symphonic impression unfolding with melting beauty and tender grace (and how masterfully this great conductor clarifies this piece’s sometimes over-thick textures). A cherishable display indeed, and the delights continue with On Wenlock Edge (now sounding even more Ravelian in its orchestral guise than the original). Ian Bostridge sings with moving ardour and intelligence (his ‘Is my team ploughing?’ is an especially compulsive interpretation), whilst Haitink’s support is a model of scrupulous sensitivity and delicate nuance (‘Bredon Hill’ features the most exquisitely subtle string textures – and what heart-warmingly dolce violins at the start of ‘Clun’). Perhaps, just perhaps, the bracing title-song might have benefited from a touch more elemental drama (the magical contrast that comes with VW’s tranquillo marking at fig. E or 2'55'' registers with greater effectiveness in the admirable Tear/Rattle performance). A tiny observation. All in all, a release to savour.'