Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 2; Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 4; Symphony No. 5; Symphony No. 6; Symphony No. 7; Symphony No. 8; Symphony No. 9; Flos camfi; Serenade to Music

COMPOSERS: Vaughan Williams
LABELS: EMI Eminence
WORKS: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 2; Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 4; Symphony No. 5; Symphony No. 6; Symphony No. 7; Symphony No. 8; Symphony No. 9; Flos camfi; Serenade to Music
PERFORMER: Joan Rodgers, Alison Barlow, Alison Hargan (soprano), William Shimell (baritone), Christopher Balmer (viola)Liverpool Philharmonic Choir, RLPO/Vemon Handley
CATALOGUE NO: CDBOX VW1 DDD
Eight years in the making and now at last complete, this Vaughan Williams project stands as a magnificent recording achievement. The astonishing variety of expression encompassed by the nine symphonies, the uniqueness of each individual masterpiece and the visionary presence of the total canon are things to wonder at, and Handley and the RLPO serve the composer with total sympathy and understanding. No performance is less than fine, and at least five of the works receive interpretations it would be hard to surpass.

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Symphonies Nos 2-5 come off with outstanding success. It was once said that no symphonist since Beethoven covered such a range of style, thought and emotion as Vaughan Williams. Though mocked by some later critics, this claim remains arguable, and certainly these four works test a conductor and orchestra’s technical command and breadth of wisdom to the limit. The heterogeneous world of No. 2, with its rugged use of the vernacular, and its moments of profound philosophy and lyricism offset by picturesque ironies, unfolds superbly, Handley’s command of tempo and the orchestra’s attack and sonority combining in majestic expression.

Each of these symphonies is remarkable for the total contrast it establishes with its neighbours, and the imaginative flight of No. 3, all grey-greens and grey-blues in virtually unbroken moderato, is no less wonderfully characterised than its highly coloured, multi-faceted predecessor. Again, both orchestra and conductor respond to the radiant serenity of the Fifth with as great a poetic intensity and profundity of understanding as they do to the angry eruptions and troubled lyricism of the Fourth, where only the composer’s famous recording equals their savagely convincing onslaught.

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By the exemplary standards established in Nos 2-5, A Sea Symphony (No. 1), though thrillingly performed, falls in lacking a convincing overall balance between its massed forces, while No. 6 remains oddly detached despite very good things. Nos 7 and 8 are also good without quite equalling strong competitors like Andrew Davis and Haitink, but No. 9 closes the series magnificently, one of the finest recordings imaginable of diis powerfully enigmatic and searching utterance. Also included are a rather pale Serenade to Music (in the choral version), but a rapt and high-tensioned Flos camfi. Anthony Payne