Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphonies

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Vaughan Williams
LABELS: Melodiya
ALBUM TITLE: Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphonies
WORKS: Symphonies 1-9
PERFORMER: Elena Dof-Donskaya, Tatyana Smolyakova (soprano), Boris Vasiliev (baritone); Choir of the Leningrad Music Society; Choir of Rimsky-Korsakov Music College; USSR State Chamber Choir; State Symphony Orchestra of the USSR Ministry of Culture/ Gennady Rozhdestvensky

Advertisement

In 1988, as glasnost expanded Russia’s official cultural horizons, conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky embarked on a remarkable project Britain has seldom attempted – a complete concert series of Vaughan Williams’s Symphonies. These broadcasts gives us the rare privilege of hearing such proverbially English music through foreign ears – much more radically alien than near neighbours like André Previn or Bernard Haitink. Rozhdestvensky is an anglophile, but he and his players come without over-familiarity or preconceptions: folk themes have no more resonance than Rimsky-Korsakov’s do for us, nor programmatic references like John Bunyan, Captain Scott or Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbevilles. The Symphonies stand purely as music, without baggage, and if anything it confirms their stature – even the less obvious ones.

The Sea Symphony makes a less than promising start, although Rozhdestvensky catches its breezy, epic vitality; fewer Russians spoke good English then, and both chorus and soloists wrestle with Walt Whitman’s words – not just pronunciation, but rhythm and expression, at semi-permanent forte. The London Symphony achieves expansive scale and momentum, especially the slow movement, but blurs atmospheric detail; there are moments where it sounds strangely Musorgskian. The Third, however, is remarkable, bringing out the harrowing wasteland quality; this is a First World War ‘Dark Pastorale’ and no mistake, especially as the soprano is more mournful than ethereal. The Fourth takes off ponderously, more lumbering than volcanic, but the last two movements are more intense. The Fifth also lacks fervour to drive its serenity, the all-important strings sounding rather bland. But the Sixth, once distrusted by British audiences, positively blossoms into spiky life, its cacophonic, destructive scherzo remarkably like Shostakovich at times. As the amiably baffled sleevenote suggests, Captain Scott isn’t even a name to Russians, and the Seventh’s heroics and Antarctic glitter are less apparent against the dark menace of a Siberian winter. The Eighth positively bounds with exuberant, impish vitality, making many native versions seem sober; and the Ninth stands out for its awesome, monumental feeling, again with almost Musorgskian echoes in the third movement, in no way a decline from the rest of the cycle.

Advertisement

These are live broadcasts, with rather lean sound and some uneven balances, and a fair number of ensemble and playing errors, besides absurdly tinny bells. They’re quite acceptable nevertheless, but you wouldn’t want them as your only set, in preference to Bernard Haitink, Vernon Handley, Kees Bakels or either Adrian Boult cycle. But as an alternative view, and one that vindicates Vaughan Williams’s genuinely universal genius, they’re compelling. Michael Scott Rohan