Vaughan Williams Boult Somm ARIADNE5018

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Vaughan Williams Live Volume 2
Thanksgiving for Victory (A Song of Thanksgiving) (1943)
Serenade to Music (1938)
Job: A Masque for Dancing (1927-30)
BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Boston Symphony Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
rec. 1943/46
SOMM Recordings Ariadne 5018 [76]

Sir Adrian Boult was very closely identified with the work which I consider to be Vaughan Williams’ orchestral masterpiece, Job: A Masque for Dancing. The work was dedicated to him and between 1933, when he conducted it for the first time, and 1977 he conducted it over sixty times. He made four commercial recordings of it, the first in 1946 and the last in 1970; it was through that latter recording, made for EMI with the LSO, that I first came to know and love the score. In his recent absorbing book, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Adrian Boult, Nigel Simeone lists all of Boult’s performances of the work and it is telling that Sir Adrian was consistently willing to champion this score in concerts abroad with local orchestras. He played it in Vienna, Geneva, Brussels and Chicago between 1935 and 1939; after the Second World War, he took it to Boston, Amsterdam, and again to both Chicago and Vienna.

The present live recording, which has never been published until now, was the third of four performances of Job which the Boston Symphony Orchestra gave with Boult in 1946 when he was guest conducting them. This wasn’t Boult’s first spell as a guest with the BSO; Michael Kennedy’s biography of the conductor tells us that Koussevitzky invited him there as early as 1935. He went back in 1946 and again in 1966; the latter visit was to Tanglewood where he conducted not the BSO itself but the student orchestra, which learned VW’s A London Symphony with him. I hoped that the Kennedy biography might shed further light on the 1946 visit, which occupied nearly two months – I believe he conducted elsewhere in North America as well. The book contains a number of quotes from a diary which Boult kept while on this tour but, frustratingly, the quoted passages cover the period before the serious work of conducting began and resume once all the concerts were out of the way. So, absent any contemporary comments, either by Boult himself or by others, we must rely on our ears when appraising this performance of Job.

The score was completely in Boult’s brain by 1946; Nigel Simeone’s aforementioned book records that he had conducted it on twelve occasions before embarking on this US visit and the present performance, given on 26 January 1946, was the third time he and the BSO had played it in six days. As a result, the interpretation is very authoritative and, furthermore, the orchestra and Boult seem fully attuned to each other. The pastoral opening is serene and when we reach the ‘Saraband of the Sons of God’ – a wonderful tune, so English in its topography – the BSO violins really make it sing on its first appearance. Satan is portrayed with menace and savagery. The ‘Minuet of the Sons of Job and their Wives’ is played with grace tinged with melancholy. I love the quiet refinement that the BSO string choir brings to ‘Job’s Dream’. A little later, when Job’s Comforters appear on the scene the Boston saxophone player produces a suitably oily, insinuating sound – unlike some players I’ve heard in this passage, the saxophonist eschews any slides. Inevitably, the vintage recording can’t do complete justice to the huge climaxes at ‘Job’s Curse’ and then at Satan’s moment of triumph, but even so, it’s perfectly clear that Boult and the BSO make the most of VW’s powerful writing.

There are no sonic limitations, however, when it comes to ‘Elihu’s Dance of Youth and Beauty’. This beguiling, beautiful episode is given a performance of chaste radiance. I wonder if the lovely violin solo was played by Richard Burgin, concertmaster of the BSO from 1920 to 1962? With Satan vanquished, the ‘Pavane of the Sons of the Morning’ is stately and graceful; Boult builds the music to an elevated climax. In the final scene VW brings the work full circle, revisiting the music of the very opening. The performance of this closing section does full justice to the tranquil beauty and radiance of the music. So ends this masterly interpretation, which is superbly played by the Boston Symphony.

This is evidently an off-air recording; there’s warm applause and we hear the radio announcer’s closing credits. I mentioned earlier that the sound can’t quite convey the biggest climaxes in the way that a modern recording can do. But that’s to state the obvious. In truth, the sound is remarkable for its age: let it not be forgotten that this recording is nearly 77 years old! As I listened, I could hear far more detail than I could have reasonably expected from a recording of this age and one gets a real sense of the performance as it unfolds. We learn from the booklet that the source material is a digitisation by Kevin Mostyn of a recording in his personal collection. The restoration work has been done by Lani Spahr. I’ve heard a good number of recordings which he has restored. He always seems to me to bring a musician’s insight as well as technical wizardry to his work – and also infinite patience, I’m sure. He’s certainly worked his magic on this recording and I doubt that anyone who invests in this disc will be bothered by any sonic limitations. This is a performance of genuine stature and collectors owe a debt of gratitude to Kevin Mostyn and Lani Spahr for allowing us to hear and enjoy it.

Thanksgiving for Victory has an interesting history, as I learned from Simon Heffer’s expert booklet essay. Once it appeared that the tide of the Second World War had turned in the Allies’ favour, the BBC wanted to be ready to mark the victory when it came and so discreet preparation began behind the scenes. VW was approached as early as 1943 and completed the piece in time for it to be recorded on 5 November 1944; the performance was duly broadcast on 13 May 1945, a few days after VE Day. The performance on this CD is that very studio premiere.

I think I’m right in saying that VW assembled the text himself, drawing on the Old Testament, Shakespeare and Rudyard Kipling. Given everything that Britain had endured in the War, VW might have been forgiven had he produced a celebratory work of rejoicing. But he was far too subtle and thoughtful for that. There’s no tub-thumping in either the libretto or the music. Instead, what one gets from the work is a sense of gratitude and relief. The performance is a good one. True, the style in which Valentine Dyall delivers his passages of narration is somewhat orotund; but that was the style of the times. Elsie Suddaby is a clear-toned soloist and the chorus work is good – the children’s choir sing the opening of the Kipling setting with clarity and confidence. The orchestra plays with great commitment for Boult, but you can’t really hear the organ. In 1952 VW renamed the piece A Song of Thanksgiving, no doubt feeling – rightly – that it had a wider application than marking the end of the War. In that year Boult recorded the work with the LPO under its new title. The recording was made in No 1 Studio at Abbey Road and it was issued by Dutton on CD in 2000 (CDBP 9703). The sound is an improvement on the 1943 BBC sound – for one thing, the organ is audible – but the 1943 recording, as remastered by Lani Spahr, comes up very well indeed; the sound is very present. And, of course, this is a genuine bit of recorded history.

So too, in its way, is the performance of Serenade to Music. This unique work was originally conceived for sixteen soloists but is presented here in a version which VW made for performance by just four soloists and SATB chorus. The soloists sing all the small solo passages while the chorus delivers those parts of the work in which, in the original version, the sixteen soloists all sing together. Whilst the original version is unsurpassed, this alternative is a very practical idea: VW recognised that opportunities to get sixteen high calibre singers together for a work that lasts about 15 minutes would be rare. (He also made a version for orchestra sans voices but, with the greatest possible respect, I’ve never seen the point of that.) The present performance, Simon Heffer tells us, was part of the live broadcast of a concert of English music which was relayed on the evening of 29 September 1946 as part of the opening day of broadcasting on the BBC Third Programme (now Radio 3). As Heffer comments, the inclusion of this piece in the inaugural concert was a testament to VW’s stature.

Interestingly, three of Boult’s soloists that evening had taken part in the Serenade’s very first performance, conducted by Sir Henry Wood, in 1938; the exception was tenor Bradbridge White. He sings quite well but he is not the equal of any of the four tenors who sang in 1938. Harold Williams is better, though the last passage he has to sing (‘The motions of his spirit…’) lies a bit too low for him; he was, after all, a baritone, not a bass. Isobel Baillie and Astra Desmond make excellent contributions. The BBC Symphony Chorus make a good contribution, though I felt that the 1943 iteration of the Chorus made an even better showing in Thanksgiving for Victory. The BBC Symphony Orchestra respond excellently to Boult’s authoritative direction. The conductor ensures that the poetry in this wonderful piece is fully conveyed. At the end we hear an announcer’s voice but there is no applause: I presume an audience was not present at this auspicious concert

These are significant performances by one of Vaughan Williams’ greatest interpreters. The recordings of the two shorter works justify their inclusion because they document important occasions – and because both are very good performances. The Boston performance of Job is in a special category. Previously unpublished, it’s a significant addition to the discography of this masterpiece.

Lani Spahr’s expert restorations have breathed new life into these important archive recordings.

John Quinn

Previous review: Nick Barnard

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Performance details
Elsie Suddaby (soprano), Valentine Dyall (narrator), George Thalben-Ball (organ), Choir of the Children of the Thomas Coram Schools, BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus
rec. 5 November 1943 Corn Exchange Bedford

Isobel Baillie (soprano), Astra Desmond (contralto), Bradbridge White (tenor), Harold Williams (baritone), BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus
rec. 29 September 1946 Maida Vale Studio 1, London

Boston Symphony Orchestra
rec. 26 January 1946, Symphony Hall, Boston