Vaughan Williams: Symphonies 5 & 8
Mark Elder’s way with Vaughan Williams’s Fifth Symphony is one of those interpretations that grows with repeated hearings. As expected from the current Hallé vintage, it’s finely played in every department, with true live-recording atmosphere (plus a decently quiet concert audience). It’s also unusually tight-reined, with tempos on the quick-ish side, so that the work’s four-movement sequence unfolds with smooth loveliness – and also might risk sounding too perfunctory to connect with the quiet depths behind the music’s surface. Yet those depths come across as truly as in any other performance I’m aware of: the Romanza third movement is every bit as haunting here as it should be.
In the second-movement Scherzo, most conductors opt for a tempo a notch or two below Vaughan Williams’s Presto misterioso marking: Elder gets closer, with flickering and fantastical results. The Passacaglia finale, too, can often seem a rather heavy-footed journey towards its serene conclusion – a situation that is here deftly side-stepped, while the music’s decisive turn into the last variation in the sequence is beautifully judged.
The Eighth Symphony is a rarity neglected to the point of ridiculousness – perhaps because the musical world still can’t quite believe that Vaughan Williams could explore such a fruitful vein of wry inventiveness in his early eighties, or create a scherzo movement of such speedy virtuosity (the music matches Shostakovich in that department). This studio recording maybe just misses the strong characterisation that makes André Previn’s recording with the London Symphony Orchestra so remarkable (on RCA, though currently unavailable). It’s excellent nonetheless.