vaughan williams somm

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Vaughan Williams Live Volume 4
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
Concerto in C major for Two Pianos and Orchestra
Symphony No.8 in D minor
Arthur Whittemore & Jack Lowe (pianos)
New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra/Dimitri Mitropoulos
Hallé Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli (symphony)
rec. 29 August 1943 (Fantasia), 17 February 1952 (Concerto), Carnegie Hall New York; 15 May 1964 Free Trade Hall, Manchester, UK (symphony)
SOMM Recordings Ariadne5020 [72]

As someone who does not often listen to historical/archive recordings, one of last year’s greatest surprises and pleasures was SOMM’s multi-disc survey of “Vaughan Williams Live”.  By the very nature of these recordings some allowance needed to be made for the technical/audio aspects of these discs – although this has been mitigated as far as possible by the remarkable audio restoration achieved by Lani Spahr. However, the interpretative insights were often genuinely revelatory from Malcolm Sargent’s brusque world premiere of Symphony No. 9 to Boult’s thrilling Job with the Boston Symphony but crowned by the composer’s own interpretations of Symphonies 2 and 5.

With Volume 4 in this series another of the great contemporary interpreters of Vaughan Williams’ music joins the roster – Sir John Barbirolli.  He was of course the dedicatee and first performer of the work presented here – Symphony No.8 – so this performance, given some six years after the composer’s death, has a special value.  However, placed before that on the disc are two performances from the USA featuring Dimitri Mitropoulos conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.  The disc opens with a 1943 broadcast from the Carnegie Hall of the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.  At first glance the incisive and dramatic Mitropoulos might seem an unlikely guide for Vaughan Williams’ visionary raptures.  Indeed, Mitropoulos’ later studio recording with the same orchestra from 1958 rather bears that out with one of the quickest on disc – just 12:44.  The “average” timing is around 15-16 minutes with Andrew Davis’ glorious performance recreating the premiere in Gloucester Cathedral making allowances for the expansive acoustic at 17:11.  But here, Mitropoulos is one of next slowest at 17:00 [the disc allows for a further 26 seconds of applause and back announcing].  This very substantial difference in timings would suggest a fairly radical reconceptualising of the work by Mitropoulos and so it proves.  The live 1943 performance is interesting because of the grave and indeed rather sombre opening with the pizzicato statement of the theme in the low strings rather ragged due to Mitropoulos’ rather mannered placing of the final note of the phrases.  However, I have to say I prefer Mitropoulos’ overall vision in this earlier version to the later, better recorded (in stereo) version.  There is greater individuality, a greater sense of exploration in 1943.  By 1958 things are a great deal more assured and fluent but the urgency of the earlier performance now simply feels impatient with the undoubtedly exciting climaxes somewhat forced.  The coupling in the late 50’s was a justly famous blazing studio account of Symphony No.4 which any admirer of that work really should know.

Another feature I really like in the 1943 Tallis performance is the old-school string playing by the (uncredited) solo string quartet.  There is a lot of use of same finger position changing which results in a lot of very expressive – some might feel indulgent(!) – sliding portamenti.  But for whatever reason this is something I enjoy a lot especially when applied with the authentic authority it is here.  Modern string players are simply not taught to use this as part of their expressive armoury and when they are applied by individuals and ensembles in music today from Mahler to Dvořák it can sound mannered.  The major problem with this recording is the quality of the transfer which even the wizardry of Lani Spahr can only partially solve.  Somm do not indicate the original recording source but it sounds as if it is an off-air acetate.  Pitch is pretty stable but as soon as dynamics rise or the intensity of the string playing increases the sound is shrouded in crackling distortion.  Of course the overall dynamic range is relatively compressed and the spatial spread of the different string groups is all but indistinguishable.  So an interesting performance to know but not a revelatory one.

The performance of the Concerto in C major for Two Pianos and Orchestra dates from 1952 by which time Mitropoulos had become the sole director of the NYPO (having shared the post with Stokowski  previously).  This translates as a more confident and assured relationship between podium and orchestra and a generally better audio sound source.  The back announcement tells us that this is the first broadcast performance in the USA of the work.  The piano duo team here are Arthur Whittemore and Jack Lowe – an established pairing and one who recorded this work for the first time on RCA in 1950 with the Robin Hood Dell Orchestra of Philadelphia (made up of musicians from Ormandy’s Philadelphia Orchestra) having given the work its USA concert premiere the year before.  So arguably at the time of this New York performance they were the performers most familiar with this work in the world.  The RCA version was released by Albion in 2021 to very positive reviews but I have not heard that transfer.  Certainly with Mitropoulos in New York the performance is assured and effective.  The genesis of the work is well-known but bares a degree of repeating.  Vaughan Williams began this large scale work as early as 1926 but did not complete the finale until five years later.  The premiere by its dedicatee Harriet Cohen had to wait another two years to a generally mixed (at best) critical reception.  Cohen had (in)famously small hands and was probably best suited to music on a less epic scale.  Not that that had stopped Arnold Bax writing similarly ill-matched music for her.  With both Bax and Vaughan Williams Cohen was loath to allow other performers to programme “her” concerti which resulted in them languishing in relative obscurity with their reputations obscured.  With the help of pianist Joseph Cooper circumvented Cohen’s objections by preparing this version for two pianos and for many years this was better known than the one piano original.

The opening movement is often characterised as being “aggressive” and “percussive”.  Whether as a function of the performance or the recording this broadcast version does not register in that way.  Certainly Mitropoulos and the NYPO are alert and nimble accompanists but the actual orchestral textures do not feel as heavy or weighty as they can.  This might be in part due to the relative lack of bass in the recording.  The balance of the two pianos is actually handled pretty well – not with the complete clarity one would expect of a modern studio performance for sure – but rather good for a radio broadcast over seventy years old.  The partnership between Whittemore and Lowe is both musically and technically impressive with the central Romanza receiving a beautifully reflective performance.  The closing Fuga chromatica occupies a similar sound world of muscular vehemence to the finale of Symphony No.4 but of course by dating from 1931 it cannot be attributed the “gathering storm clouds of War” often associated with that work.  Perhaps after all it really was just a case of Vaughan Williams exploring new and untried musical avenues.  Whatever the truth, this music is well-suited to Mitropoulos and his well-drilled orchestra so overall this is another impressive interpretation.

“Glorious John” will ever be associated with some of the definitive performances of Vaughan Williams’ music and probably none more so than the Symphony No.8 since it was dedicated to him and given premiere performances and recordings by him as well.  What is not clear from the documentation accompanying this disc is whether the 1964 Free Trade Hall broadcast here is new to the catalogue.  A quick look on Discogs and the Barbirolli Society website does not seem to show a previous iteration of this performance commercially which will increase its interest and value to collectors.  Simon Heffer’s liner note states; “The composer believed Barbirolli had the most perfect understanding of the components of the work and its overall message…” 

Direct comparison with the 1958 studio recording, which has pretty much remained in the catalogue in various incarnations ever since its original release, is interesting but not that telling.  Timings are a case of nip and tuck; the opening Fantasia a few seconds faster the following Scherzo alla Marcia a tad slower for example.  Interpretatively they are unsurprisingly similar with Barbirolli’s intuitive grasp of both the character and the ebb and flow of the work always apparent.  The third movement Cavatina for strings alone is a model of long breathed phrasing and expressive subtleties.  There are two fairly significant buts; the radio broadcast engineering is perfectly adequate – certainly the best on the this disc – but next to the studio engineering from half a dozen years earlier it is actually a little disappointing.  Perhaps that is more a credit to the studio engineers than a criticism of their BBC counterparts.  The other consideration is the actual quality of the orchestral playing.  Again the Hallé in the studio are considerably more polished than the ‘live’ incarnation a few years later – given that this is Vaughan Williams’ most playful and colourful symphony the alertness of the playing and the fidelity of the recording do become important considerations.  By chance, and unrelated to reviewing this disc, I recently heard for the first time another ‘live’ Symphony No.8 from around the same time.  This is Charles Munch conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra currently available from Pristine and it can be heard in full on YouTube here.  This is another live concert performance in remarkably good sound – stereo to boot – from 1958 and one that is frankly quite a bit more interesting and challenging to the listener’s expectations than Barbirolli’s sensitive but conventional broadcast version.  Especially since the playing of the Boston orchestra is significantly more virtuosic than their Hallé colleagues.  I can understand why the programme planners at Somm felt that the inclusion of Barbirolli in this series was important and valid – but in this specific instance perhaps a new mastering by Lani Spahr of this Boston performance could have been even more compelling a coupling.

So a warm welcome to Volume 4 of this very well presented series although perhaps not at quite the level of revelation that the other issues prompted.  The Somm booklet is slightly more modest too – there are no details of the original source recordings or any particular insights into either the performers or the interpretations and no photographs of any of the key players either.  I would assume that purchasers of this disc already know about the music so it is these particular interpretations that will interest them.  I would have been curious to know if Mitropoulos programmed much/any more Vaughan Williams, did Lowe and Whittemore keep this work in their repertoire for example.  There is much to enjoy in these recordings with great performers fully invested in this great music – but for the first time in this series other historical performances offer even more insights.

Nick Barnard

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