vaughan williams PASC673

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Symphony No. 6 in E minor (1947)
Symphony No. 9 in E minor (1958)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
rec. 2-5 and 30 December 1953, Kingsway Hall, London (sym 6, mono); 7-8 September 1958, Walthamstow Assembly Hall (sym 9, stereo)

What are we today to make – and, given the historical nature of this recording, what did his contemporaries make – of the Vaughan Williams Sixth Symphony? When it initially appeared in the years following the Second World War, it was hailed immediately as a masterpiece and was received enthusiastically by audiences and critics alike. The latter group, who had been complaining for years about the composer’s supposedly amateurish technique and his fondness for English pastoralism (by which they meant English folk music), seemed for once to be united in their praise for a score which was placed on the very highest pedestal of British music. A few years later Deryck Cooke, in his seminally important book The language of music which sought to lay out a template of compositional technique for the instruction of future practitioners, included a lengthy and extraordinary detailed analysis of the Vaughan Williams score, which he contrasted and compared with no less an established classical essential as the Mozart Symphony No 40 as two models for future generations.

Vaughan Williams himself seems to have been not a little taken aback by this acclaim. In his original programme note he had provided his own analysis of the score, laying emphasis not on any larger schemes but deliberately underplaying the elements of contrapuntal ingenuity involved: “the woodwind experiment as to how the fugue subject will sound upside down, but  the brass are angry and insist on playing it the right way up, so for a bit the two go on together and to the delight of everyone including the composer the two fit…” The extraordinary last movement, which had almost immediately provoked analogies and images of the destruction following on nuclear war, was similarly given a more prosaic explanation. The composer insisted that the image in his mind was that provided by Prospero in The Tempest: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life Is rounded with a sleep.” But there is nothing somnolent about the brooding and disturbed music.

Nonetheless insofar as later interpretions are concerned, commentators have tended to take the composer at his word. It is known that he disliked having his symphonies supplied with extra-musical associations – he complained that listeners never seemed willing to admit that a composer might just wish to write music for its own sake. But he remained silent even when the Pastoral Symphony was misinterpreted by its hearers as a depiction of the English countryside, rather than a response to the French landscape behind the lines during the First World War. And this was despite the clear programmatic indications supplied by the military fanfares in the second movement; how much more it is apparent that VW would have wished to avoid any suspicion of an underlying motive in the lengthy pianissimo stillness of the finale in the Sixth? Indeed, he went to the opposite extreme in his programme note: “the strings cannot make up their minds whether to finish in E flat major or E minor. They finally decide on E minor, which is after all the home key…” But that apparently flippant comment does not even begin to address the atmosphere evoked by what has gone before, or indeed the emotional engagement which its initial audiences clearly felt was engendered by the symphony itself. Once again the military undertones are incontrovertible, in the persistent morse code battering of the second movement with its martial rhythms matching and overwhelming the depiction of mechanised warfare supplied by his friend Holst in The Planets thirty years earlier. And once these are recognised, the static nature of the desolate finale can be so easily construed as a vision not only of the devastation caused throughout Europe during the Second World War, but the worldwide catastrophe that could so easily have been conjured by an atomic conflict during the Cold War that followed. It took the Cuban missile crisis to finally convince the global super-powers to scale down the arms race that seemed to be careering towards inevitable disaster, and that did not come until five years after the composer was dead.

Vaughan Williams may very well have intended his finale to be a more dream-like conception than these bleak interpretations suggested, but he cannot possibly have been immune to the further depictions of desolation implied in the writing. And this can be clearly heard in his own words responding to the players at the end of the recording session, where Boult has deliberately stretched the music to breaking point in its sheer duration defying the level at which total statis might be in danger of setting in. (It is only recently, thanks to Nigel Simeone’s marvellous new book on the relationship between composer and conductor, that we now know that VW actually altered the metronome mark for the movement before the take.) He thanks the orchestra for their playing in hushed tones which speak of an emotional exhaustion that cannot even be concealed by a gruff note of gratitude. It is this recorded postscript that makes this recording so uniquely valuable, and which earns our thanks to Pristine for the remarkable job they have undertaken in remastering the original mono recording in ambient stereo. The new clarity of the sound is not without its drawbacks – we can hear understandable moments of hesitation by the orchestra in some of the more difficult passages – but Boult is careful not to allow any imprecisions to cause distress, and he sidesteps the temptation to conceal these by a headlong pace where momentary slips are simply covered up by the headlong pace of the delivery – as for example Sargent did in his 1960s Prom performance which has recently been reissued.

It was Sargent too who gave the first performance of the Vaughan Williams Ninth and began a tradition of treating the music with a degree of briskness clearly designed to paper over any structural cracks in the formal design of the work. We now know that some of the music was assembled from various other earlier sources – but then we also know this about the Vaughan Williams Fifth, and nobody has even complained there about the music failing to cohere; indeed, the composer was a master of the careful transition from one set of material to another, as can be clearly demonstrated by the care with which he masked his excisions from the score of the London Symphony over the years, to the extent that if we did not know where the sometimes regrettable omissions had been made they would be indetectable. There is no reason to apologise for any supposed ramshackle nature of the construction in the Ninth either; but that did not for one second stop the critics from mounting an attack. In his brief note with this issue James Altena earns our thanks by drawing our attention to some really horrible reviews that the symphony earned when it first appeared: “the supposedly barbaric march theme,” sniffed Colin Mason in the Manchester Guardian, “is the silliest and poorest music in the work” – and even Adam Bell in the same publication three days later, admitted that “it does not quite convince as a piece of music.”

When the LPO convened in London to record the symphony in the immediate aftermath of the composer’s death, we can hear the voice of Sir Adrian Boult recording his own tribute to Vaughan Williams along with the slightly curious comment that the LP was intended to convey the music to “American listeners.” At the same time, with music that must still have been very novel and somewhat perplexing to the players, one gets the feeling that both conductor and orchestra are rather feeling their way and occasionally skating above the surface of the deeper undercurrents in the music. That extraordinary orchestral effect in the opening and closing bars where the trio of saxophones enter with their unrelated harmonies as if at a distance lack the sense of mystery and enchantment that one really would desire, and the constant shifts of orchestral perspective – another VW landmark, this time one that goes back to the Tallis Fantasia – occasionally feel brusque or abrupt. This was one symphony where Boult in his later EMI cycle clearly improved on his earlier traversal of the music for Decca – although, since the latter company had ducked out of recording the work, the engineering and release was undertaken by Everest, whose stereo production techniques were not perhaps quite as smooth as those of their rivals. Never mind. We should be properly grateful to Pristine that, in order to let us hear the complete earlier Boult traversal of the Vaughan Williams symphonies, they have included this recording in their handsomely packaged set. And also we should be gratified that they are furnishing us with the smaller works that were originally issued as fillers with the symphonies on another pair of remasterings.

When greeting the earlier Pristine issue of the Sea Symphony at the beginning of this VW anniversary year, I complained about the comparative lack of enthusiasm for suitable celebrations. And at the end of the year I fear that I must, in the same curmudgeonly vein, rehash some of those complaints: the lack of any professional productions of any of the composer’s operas, in particular the central masterpiece The Pilgrim’s Progress; the continuing lack of their representation on DVD (with the sole and honourable exception of the RTÉ Riders to the sea); the failure of Warner in their substantially unchanged reissue of the EMI Vaughan Williams box issued in 2010 to address the issues regarding the botched editing of old LP side joins in such important recordings as the Willcocks Sancta Civitas and the Boult Dona nobis pacem. Perhaps the worst culprits of all were the composer’s own publishers Oxford University Press who produced a full score of The Pilgrim’s Progress (disgracefully never before available in print) in the shape of a smudgy photocopy of what looks like a battered original rehearsal score from 1951. The only sections of the score in print are those which remained unchanged from the Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains, a copy of the 1924 published score of that episode having been bodily dismembered and interleaved with the later and new material in manuscript (not, thankfully, VW’s own handwriting!) and then – even more extraordinarily – passages crossed through and deleted, other extra pages inserted with arrows showing the unfortunate performers where to go next (and not even accurately, at that) and squiggles where the unfortunate copyist has run out of space on the page and had to backtrack to fit in individual vocal lines. One might have thought that someone at OUP, seeing that they were finally getting round to issuing the full score in print, might have commissioned some impecunious student or other to sit down for eight months and transfer the whole caboodle onto Sibelius so that at least a legible, correct and properly revised score would have been issued.

But at the same time the anniversary year has furnished some admirable landmarks. The BBC did at least devote one whole month to Vaughan Williams in Composer of the Week on Radio 3, including in the broadcasts some valuable rarities although again the operas got rather short shrift; Hyperion continued to discover new and previously unrecorded pieces as fillers for their cycle of the symphonies conducted by Martyn Brabbins; and Albion also continued their admirable series of issues containing works which were either totally unknown or unfamiliar in the guises presented on the new recordings. And among those new discoveries may now be counted this pioneering Boult cycle of the symphonies, with the already excellent old mono recordings newly refurbished in sound that in many ways means that they can still stand as a challenge to much more recent issues.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: Ralph Moore (October 2022)

Availability: Pristine Classical