Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 5

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Vaughan Williams
LABELS: Somm
WORKS: Symphony No. 5; Dona Nobis Pacem
PERFORMER: Renée Flynn (soprano), Roy Henderson (baritone); BBC Symphony Chorus & Orchestra/Vaughan Williams
CATALOGUE NO: SOMMCD 071

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Vaughan Williams knew that as a conductor he had his technical limitations. ‘You’ll be all right’, he told one orchestra, ‘as long as you don’t follow me!’ Yet there’s a strange chemistry to conducting: sometimes it’s enough simply to change the personality on the podium to make musicians play differently.

There are a couple of places in the 1952 Proms Fifth Symphony where you sense that the composer’s grip on rhythmic ensemble isn’t all it might be. But the fervour, radiant warmth and sense of the symphony as a great journey – a ‘passionate pilgrimage’ – make this a uniquely compelling experience.

There’s barely a single tiny phrase that doesn’t carry a special expressive charge, yet everything is absorbed into one overarching vision – that really is the word here.

After this comes the first ‘official’ release of the BBC recording of the 1936 premiere of Dona Nobis Pacem (‘Grant us peace’). It’s a performance of such searing, at times genuinely unsettling intensity that the work’s weaker pages fairly sail by.

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In both recordings the sound is pretty limited (both are taken from acetate discs), but the engineering work is excellent, bringing out details unheard before, taming surface noise, and allowing the quality of the music-making to come through with remarkable directness – for that Somm deserves at least a third recording star. Stephen Johnson