Sir Andrew Davis conducts the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of Vaughan Williams’s Job and Symphony No. 9

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COMPOSERS: Ralph Vaughan Williams
LABELS: Chandos
ALBUM TITLE: Vaughan Williams
WORKS: Job; Symphony No. 9
PERFORMER: Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/ Sir Andrew Davis
CATALOGUE NO: CHSA 5180 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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Richard Hickox’s far too early death in 2008 meant that his ongoing Vaughan Williams project with Chandos remained incomplete. This release features two major omissions from the cycle up to that point – each of them among the least performed of the composer’s masterpieces, and therefore all the more welcome in this unlikely-looking coupling.

Job was dedicated to Adrian Boult, and it can be difficult to put memories of his two recordings entirely to one side when considering a successor. It’s a measure of the exceptional quality of Andrew Davis’s interpretation – far finer than his earlier recording on Warner Classics – that the issue just doesn’t seem to arise. No conductor since has approached Boult’s circle-squaring combination of stately grandeur and near-explosive emotional power in Job, and probably none will. Yet Davis’s approach is much more than a concession to today’s fashionable tight-reined style. There’s a naturalness of manner here that nonchalantly underlines the story-telling element of this Elizabethan-inspired ‘masque for dancing’ (Vaughan Williams’s riposte to the stylised manner of classical ballet, which he loathed).

William Blake’s paintings illustrating the biblical story drew from the composer an astonishing range of invention in each of the work’s short-ish sections. Davis’s journey through the sequence is quite briskly paced, but never in a way that’s perfunctory. He also gets a superlative response from the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. Among countless moments to remember are the two deftly alternating flutes in the ‘Dance of Job’s Sons and Daughters’; and leader Alexander Kagan’s violin-playing in ‘Elihu’s Dance of Youth and Beauty’ is a masterclass in how to search out emotionally charged rapture without the result sounding like an attention-seeking concerto solo.

The same top-flight level of playing and conducting graces the Ninth Symphony, premiered in the year of its composer’s death, and still a rarity in the concert hall. This may be partly due to its bleak, Shostakovich-like manner – first unveiled in the Sixth Symphony, and here explored even more insistently, with a trio of saxophones presiding balefully over the music’s grey-to-black sonorities like the three Fates of Greek legend. The second movement, with its eerie flugelhorn solo and waspish scherzo-like interjections, was evidently inspired by Tess of the d’Urbervilles; could it be that the Ninth relates to an unwritten Vaughan Williams opera based on Thomas Hardy’s novel? The cumulative effect is of immense and implacable power, astonishing from a composer in his mid-eighties. In both works the recorded orchestral sound is gorgeously warm, detailed, and naturally balanced.

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Malcolm Hayes