The best recording of Vaughan Williams’s Pastoral Symphony
London Symphony Orchestra/André Previn
André Previn was principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra (which we named one of the best orchestras in the world) for most of the 1970s, and during that period they made many wonderful recordings together. This A Pastoral Symphony was among the best of them, and it continues to set a high bar for other interpretations to aspire to.
The LSO was packed with outstanding section leaders at the time, and the quality of the solo playing eclipses that on any other recording. Violinist John Georgiadis, clarinettist Gervase de Peyer and flautist William Bennett all make telling contributions, as do the oboe and viola soloists, while the important horn and trumpet solos in the second movement are plangently expressive.
Previn’s shaping of the Pastoral has an organic, naturally unravelling quality that is deeply satisfying, and invites repeated listening. The dip and swell of Vaughan Williams’s string writing in the opening movement is sentiently registered, its uneasy dynamic surges unsettling the listener without grandstanding or over-emphasis.
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The third movement has a grungy, glowering demeanour owing much to the LSO’s unshakable corporate virtuosity and Previn’s rhythmic trenchancy. Again, though, Previn deftly avoids overstatement – the physical threat carried in the music is palpable, but there is no unnecessary pummelling. The jittery fugal coda is incisively delivered, and for once seems more than a quizzical afterthought.
Heather Harper is an ideally steady, heartfelt soloist in the finale, her ‘distant’ placing (VW’s stipulation) not so distant that she is audibly in a different acoustic. The inherent sadness of the movement is mitigated by the dignified beauty of the LSO’s playing, shaped by Previn with unfailing sensitivity and insight. Together they find a moving positivity at the symphony’s conclusion, more stirringly articulated than in any other version.
The classic analogue sound is another telling factor in Previn’s favour. No other CD version of the Pastoral holds Vaughan Williams’s subtly intertwining textures so clearly in focus, and there is a tonal richness and plenitude which often seems absent in digital recordings.
Previn’s LSO cycle of the Vaughan Williams symphonies comes and goes in the CD catalogue, regularly finding itself deleted and then repackaged and reissued. It is, however, always available to download or stream. His Pastoral is a classic, the complete cycle an enduring cornerstone of the VW discography.
Three other great recordings of Vaughan Williams’s Pastoral Symphony
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Kees Bakels
The Dutchman Kees Bakels was principal guest conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony when he made a near-complete cycle of the Vaughan Williams symphonies with the orchestra. Recorded in 1992, his Pastoral is a particularly fine interpretation, one of the most naturally flowing on disc. The recorded sound is a touch misty in tutti sections, but bass lines have a satisfying presence, and Patricia Rozario is a particularly evocative soprano soloist.
London Philharmonia Orchestra/Roger Norrington
Decca 458 3572
Roger Norrington’s 1997 Pastoral is among the quickest versions you’ll come across, bringing an added edginess to the opening movement in particular. Nowhere, though, is it superficial – both the second and fourth movements are full of expressivity and emotion, and the London Philharmonic’s excellent playing is captured in a resonant, rangy Decca recording. Norrington’s Pastoral is texturally leaner than Previn’s, and filled with flickering monochrome shadings suggesting the ghostly legacy of wartime conflict. Cumulatively it’s a notably moving experience, and as an interpretation has been seriously underrated.
Hallé Orchestra/Mark Elder
Vaughan Williams was once a pupil of Ravel, and no version of the Pastoral makes that clearer than Mark Elder’s 2013 recording with the Hallé orchestra. The opening movement in particular has a sensuality reminiscent of Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloé, but it has the necessary dark undercurrent too. The third movement feels slightly rushed and scrambled, but there is no doubting the depth of feeling in both Elder’s interpretation and the Hallé’s playing.
And one to avoid…
Adrian Boult was a great Vaughan Williams conductor, but his 1968 Pastoral with the New Philharmonia Orchestra is not his finest moment. Phrasing is often curiously glib and flat, and at times the deeper emotions of the music seem glided over. Rhythms are also relatively listless, and ensemble can be sloppy. The stereo recording has a greater range than his 1953 mono recording with the London Philharmonic, but that earlier version has a fire and vibrancy that the re-make cannot equal.
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