Vaughan Williams: Sinfonia antartica; Symphony No. 8

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Vaughan Williams
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: Sinfonia antartica; Symphony No. 8
PERFORMER: Lynda Russell (soprano); Waynflete Singers, Bournemouth SO/Kees Bakels
CATALOGUE NO: 8.550737
Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia antartica has often been derided – its origins as music for the film Scott of the Antarctic haven’t helped. But there are well-known precedents for the welding of symphonic and programmatic writing and, in the right hands, the Sinfonia antartica, too, can emerge as a powerful unity. Bakels, I fear, is not one of that select band: the incidental scenery wins over the wider dramatic scheme in this latest instalment of his ongoing Naxos RVW cycle. Compared with Haitink’s awesome account on EMI, Bakels doesn’t engage the ear in nearly so fulfilling a way. The Bournemouth orchestra plays its heart out but lacks the earthy refinement of Haitink’s LPO; the off-stage voices, however, are more evocatively placed on the Naxos than the EMI recording.

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Even grittier is Barbirolli’s performance with the Hallé. Made just months after the premiere by the team that gave that first performance, it is a blazing account, its atmosphere defying its harsh mono glare. This reissued set, indeed, is a real treasure trove, with wonderful accounts of the oboe and tuba concertos from Evelyn Rothwell and Philip Catelinet respectively.

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In the same way that I found Bakels’s approaches to the Third and Sixth Symphonies brought widely contrasted results (reviewed October 1994), so the Eighth here, although recorded at the same sessions, is a much more satisfying experience than his Antartica. Matthew Rye