Vaughan Williams: 1) Complete Symphonies; The Wasps – Overture; Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis; The Lark Ascending; Fantasia on Greensleeves; Job2) Complete Symphonies; The Wasps – Overture; Flos Campi

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COMPOSERS: Vaughan Williams
LABELS: 1) Warner 2) Naxos
ALBUM TITLE: Vaughan Williams
WORKS: 1) Complete Symphonies; The Wasps – Overture; Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis; The Lark Ascending; Fantasia on Greensleeves; Job2) Complete Symphonies; The Wasps – Overture; Flos Campi
PERFORMER: 1) Soloists, Tasmin Little (violin); BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Andrew Davis2) Soloists, Paul Silverthorne (viola); Bournemouth Symphony Chorus & Orchestra/Paul Daniel, Kees Bakels
CATALOGUE NO: 1) 2564 69848-3 (6 discs) 2) 8.506017 (6 discs)

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Can any single conductor ever be equally successful in unfolding such an utterly contrasting set of symphonies as the Vaughan Williams nine? The issue is complicated in the Naxos re-release by the division of the symphonies between two conductors; Kees Bakels in Nos 2, 3, 5-9; Paul Daniel in Nos 1 and 4. And while most of the Naxos set was recorded in the Poole Arts Centre and all but one of the Warner in St Augustine’s, Kilburn, neither acoustic sounds constant across their series, owing to changes of producers and recording engineers. Thus, while the Naxos might seem the more spacious and recessed, Bakels’s recording of Symphony No. 3 Pastoral is luxuriantly forward and detailed, while his No. 6, recorded at the Bournemouth Winter Gardens, is rather dry and compressed. What of the conductors themselves? On initial listening it seems that while Bakels was often beguiled by detail, Davis had a firmer grip of the unfolding continuity, the long line, running through each symphony – with Nos 3, 5, 6 and 9 notable in this respect. Yet, whether because he believes less in the filmic Sinfonia Antartica (No. 7), his account hangs fire compared with Bakels’s mostly faster, more purposeful reading. However, while Bakels is more urgent in the marmorial first movement of No. 9, it is Davis, at a slightly slower pace who better captures its brooding monumentality. As for Paul Daniel, the recording of his spirited 2002 account of A Sea Symphony (No. 1) is qualified by the excessive spotlighting of his two fine soloists. Yet his reading of Symphony No. 4 is fiercer and tighter than Davis with something of the fury of the famous old recording by VW himself. Moreover this Naxos disc is completed by a lovely account of the exotic Flos Campi with the eloquent Paul Silverthorne as viola soloist, and is not to be missed. Yet the Davis set is crowned by a sonorous and virile performance of the balletic ‘Masque for Dancing’ Job. So where are we? Clearly we are dealing here with conductors who love the works and all have their individual insights to bring to them. The same might be said of Boult’s two shots at the complete symphonies, and the sets by Previn, Haitink and Handley that have been in and out of the catalogues over the decades. For those who want the symphonies in noble and mature interpretations in a consistent acoustic, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic set under Vernon Handley and produced by Andrew Keener is perhaps the optimum choice. Nonetheless, it remains a salient characteristic of masterpieces that no one performance can ever reveal all that they contain. Bayan Northcott