Vaughan Williams symphonies PASC668

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Sinfonia antartica (Symphony No 7) (1953)
Symphony No 8 (1956)
Margaret Ritchie (soprano), Sir John Gielgud (speaker)
London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
rec. 10-11 December 1953 (7, mono) and 7-8 September 1956 (8, stereo), Kingsway Hall, London, UK

In earlier reviews for this site I have extolled the virtues of the new Pristine remasterings of the 1950s Boult cycle of Vaughan Williams symphonies, set down for Decca in the presence of the composer and consistently available in the catalogues ever since. The sound in the new transfers of the Sea Symphony (review) and Symphonies Nos 4 and 5 (review) was remarkably transformed, giving the acoustic a new richness and the performances a new lease of life. In latest instalment, coupling the Sinfonia antartica and the Symphony No 8 (the latter recorded in stereo some three years after the rest of the cycle) the rewards of the remastering are less obviously tangible, but no less noteworthy.

The Sinfonia antartica is, after the choral Sea Symphony, the most extravagantly scored of the Vaughan Williams canon, and the Decca recording produced by the young John Culshaw took full advantage of the expanded orchestral tapestry to provide a real sense of drama and contrast. This is perhaps most noticeable in the remarkable Landscape third movement with its sudden organ entry representing the ice fall [track 3]. This comes as the climax of a persistent crescendo gradually involving the whole orchestra, and the sudden organ entry is rapidly joined by the full orchestra to produce an overwhelming climax. It can often sound like a repetition of a similar episode in the ballet Job which the composer wrote some twenty years earlier, where an equally abrupt organ entry depicts the triumph of Satan seated upon the throne of God; but the intention is very different, since the Job passage should come as an unanticipated and violent shock rather than as the inevitable culmination of the music. And the organ sound should similarly be different both in timbre and in effect. Here in the Kingsway Hall the sound originally had a clangourous violence which reflected the recording of Job made by the same forces at around the same time; and the ambient stereo of the Pristine remastering does something to soften the almost barbarically electronic sound of the original, to its decided benefit. It is a pity however that nothing could be done about the extremely tinny gong sound of the tam-tam immediately before the organ entry. Other dangerously artificial elements in the score, like the wind machine which dominates the conclusion, are handled with greater aplomb and musicality; the instrument at the Manchester première under Sir John Barbirolli some months before had apparently caused severe problems. The wordless chorus is nicely distanced, Margaret Ritchie placed slightly further forward but not obtrusively so.

The fact that Sir John Gielgud was engaged to read the superscriptions before each of the movements has caused quite a bit of adverse comment over the years, not least because the inclusion of these readings means that a musical break has to be inserted between the third and fourth movements which are marked in the score to be continuous. But it is also clear that the composer approved the arrangement, which has been followed in a few subsequent recordings. Even on the original LP great care was taken to ensure that the actor’s voice was suitably recessed into the hall acoustic, with no attempt made to match the immediacy of contemporary broadcast recording techniques by microphone placement. In the ambient stereo remastering Gielgud recedes even further, not always to the benefit of his audibility, and his apostrophe to the ice fall now makes less of an impact than it did on the original LP. Some may regard that as a benefit.

As I have noted, the recording of the Eighth Symphony was actually made in stereo (Christopher Whelan now the producer), so that the benefit of remastering is much less noticeable than in earlier episodes of this cycle. It is interesting to note however that when it originally appeared the issue came into direct competition with a rival version from Barbirolli, who had once again given the première of the work. And in the final movement, where VW had indulged himself in a riot of tuned percussion with a glorious exuberance after movements scored for wind and strings only, Barbirolli and his engineers had a field day with the set of tuned gongs which the composer had added to the score after hearing them in a performance of Turandot, highlighting and indeed spotlighting them by means of forward microphone placement. Even in his original stereo LP Boult had no truck with this sort of artificial enhancement, and the Turandot gongs were firmly banished to the back of the stage with the rest of the percussion. This enables the rest of the orchestra to make themselves clearly heard, but it does lack something of the panache of the Barbirolli alternative. Presumably the composer was at both sessions, and approved the result both times; one wonders which he really preferred. I must admit that after the Barbirolli technicolour, however artificial, the Boult does sound a bit subdued even if more realistic. At the same time the use of the vibraphone in the first movement, providing the theme for variations – the theme whose very existence VW was so much at pains to deny – is better integrated into the sound by the Decca engineers than with the Pye team who were responsible for Barbirolli in Manchester. Pristine’s succinct liner notes by James Altena interestingly record some extremely disparaging remarks by Peter Heyworth about the first performance where he describes the composer’s scoring as that of an “invincible amateur.”

This cycle goes on from strength to strength, and it is pleasing to note the Pristine have incorporated the Boult première recording of the Ninth (originally made for Everest) to complete the survey. The remastering really does make a difference, and the greater intensity of these earlier Boult recordings made in the presence of the composer now gives them a real advantage over his later stereo cycle for EMI. These historical documents may no longer possess the luxury of ultimately beautiful sound, but they are much more than simple ancient artifacts; they are living testimony to a sympathy between composer and conductor, and deserve to be in the collection of every VW lover.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: Ralph Moore (September 2022)

Availability: Pristine Classical