Vaughan Williams Live Vol 3 Somm Recordings

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
A London Symphony (No.2)
Symphony No.5 in D major – World premiere performance
Symphony No.5 in D major
Dona Nobis Pacem
Reneé Flynn (soprano), Roy Henderson (baritone)
London Symphony Orchestra (London), London Philharmonic Orchestra (sym 5), BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus (Pacem)/Ralph Vaughan Williams
rec. 13 November 1936 (Pacem), BBC Studios London; 31 July 1943 (sym 5 premiere), 24 June 1946 (London), 3 September 1952 (sym 5), Royal Albert Hall, London
Vaughan Williams Live Volume 3
Somm Recordings ARIADNE5019-2 [2 CDs: 146]

Somehow, I managed to get out of sequence with my reviews of SOMM’s Vaughan Williams Live series. I reviewed Volume 1 and Volume 2 but then proceeded to Volume 4. Time, then, to fill in the gap by considering Volume 3. The other three volumes have all been extremely valuable but Volume 3, I fancy, has claims to be the most significant of all since all the contents are conducted by the composer himself, and it includes two highly significant performances which, to the best of my knowledge, are new to CD.

The second of the two discs in this set prompts a question: When is a reissue not a reissue? On this disc we have performances of the Fifth Symphony and of Dona Nobis Pacem which SOMM issued back in 2008. I reviewed the disc then. The performance of the Fifth Symphony was given at the Proms in 1952 and was, at that time, new to CD. I described the performance as “a very fine one. There are a few orchestral fluffs but nothing too serious. Vaughan Williams gives a reading that is direct and unfussy but one that also conveys admirably the wonderful poetry of this radiant symphony.” That judgement still holds good, but the importance of this “reissue” is that we hear the performance in a new transfer by Lani Spahr, using different source material. The previous transfer, by Gary Moore, was very good but the new one surpasses it. A/B comparison shows that the new incarnation presents the performance in sound that is brighter, cleaner and even more clear than the previous effort. The greater clarity seems to me to be especially apparent in the Scherzo. Altogether, Lani Spahr offers collectors a more comfortable and vivid listening experience. One other point is that Gary Moore had to work with source material which wasn’t quite complete: the first five bars of the Romanza were missing and Mr Moore filled that gap by grafting on the bars concerned from the 1943 premiere of the symphony, of which more in a moment. He did an expert job, but Lani Spahr was able to work with material that was complete.

The other piece on the 2008 SOMM disc was the famous 1936 recording of the cantata Dona Nobis Pacem, made under studio conditions just a matter of weeks after the first performance in Huddersfield. That recording had been issued on CD previously; I had it in a transfer on the Pearl label. I stated then a firm preference for Gary Moore’s SOMM transfer: “I can state unequivocally that an A/B comparison shows that this Somm transfer completely supersedes the Pearl effort. The Somm disc is brighter, clearer and has an almost visceral impact compared with the Pearl. Not only that, the new transfer reports much more detail in both the loud and soft passages.” I’m not sure if Lani Spahr used different source material for his new transfer. It seems to me that the differences between his transfer and the one made by Gary Moore are not too great. The Spahr transfer beneficially takes a bit of an edge off the sound and makes it a more comfortable listening experience. As I said in my original review, the composer leads a vivid performance of this compelling work. The urgency of the performance surely reflects the times in which it was given, with storm clouds gathering over Europe and peace under serious threat. If I may, I’ll refer readers who wish to know more to the detailed comments on the performances of both works in my previous review because it’s time to switch the focus to the two performances on Disc 1 of this set.

Both of the performances were recorded off air by Kenneth Leech (1892-1995). Andrew Neill reminds us in the booklet of the accomplishments of this remarkable man. An engineer by profession – and a very successful one at that – Leech was also a very musical man, to the extent of taking private composition lessons. Between 1934 and 1957 he made many off-air recordings of BBC broadcasts, using a single disc machine. His collection is now housed in the British Library, I believe. As can be heard from the two recordings on this CD, Leech obtained excellent results. There was one snag, though: because he only had one turntable, he had to change discs at roughly four-minute intervals. Inevitably, some music was lost and the two performances here preserved reflect that. There are breaks in every movement of both symphonies and if, for instance, we compare the running time of the 1952 performance of the Fifth (37:19) and the playing time of the 1943 performance (33:43) we can see that approximately 3 ½ minutes of music are missing from the 1943 performance. All the gaps in both works are listed in full in SOMM’s booklet.

That’s the bad news: let’s focus, rather, on the extremely good news. Here, SOMM offer us the very first performance of the Fifth Symphony and what is, so far as I know, the only preserved performance of the London Symphony conducted by VW. That’s pure gold for admirers of the composer’s music. It’s true that the gaps are disconcerting, indeed, frustrating. However, I don’t believe they invalidate the importance of issuing these two performances on CD. In his review, my colleague Nick Barnard used a wonderful turn of phrase: “The best analogy I can come up with is when viewing an ancient fresco or mosaic which has been damaged over the centuries; you can see where parts of the original artwork are missing but the sense of the total magnificence of the original remains.”  How right he is!

I was very impressed by the performance of the London Symphony. The slow introduction to the first movement is beautifully shaped, the tempo ideally spacious. In the main Allegro risoluto, VW achieves excellent momentum. The slower section, introduced by the solo viola, was recorded intact by Leech and it’s magically performed. Of the movement as a whole I’ve written in my notes “colourful, affectionate and the spirit of the music is completely realised”. The slow movement, in which there’s a break quite early on, is spacious and affectionate in VW’s hands. I was struck by the ruminative episode introduced by a solo violin and during which we hear the harness jingles. The whole passage is poetically done, even if a tiny clarinet error momentarily threatens to take the performance into the wrong key! A side break means that we miss the build-up to the passionate climax, but the climax itself is ardently sung by the orchestra. 

The Scherzo is largely intact; as Lani Spahr explains, he was able to bridge one gap (during which some music is repeated) by patching in from elsewhere in the movement. The performance is vivacious. VW ensures that the opening of the finale is truly passionate. Sadly, there’s quite a gap a little later on, meaning that we miss the first part of the cathartic climax but we hear enough to appreciate how ardently the climax is thrust home. The Epilogue is very well done; the mysterious poetry is beautifully conveyed. There’s no applause at the end.

Yes, there are gaps in this performance, but we still get an excellent idea of VW’s view of his music and, as such, this is a priceless document. He conducts the symphony really well and the music is well played by the LSO. Importantly, the quality of the sound, as restored by Lani Spahr, is astonishingly good given that this performance took place nearly 77 years ago.

How moving it is to hear the wartime premiere of the serene Fifth Symphony. Again, there are gaps but I found I could listen past the gaps. The playing of the wartime LPO is good, though their 1952 colleagues were rather more polished. VW unfolds the first movement with patience; the unforced radiance of the music is readily apparent. He takes the Scherzo quite steadily but the music is full of life; it’s a pity that the performance is cut off quite a bit before the end. The Romanza is serene but it is by no means dreamy; there’s underlying strength in the music. The second portion of the movement – after Leech’s side break – is full of ardour. The Passacaglia is also in two segments. In the first of these I was struck by the vigour which VW injects into the music. Indeed, I’m not sure I can recall a more bracing account of this music: conductors could profitably listen to how the composer first presented this music in public. In his excellent booklet essay, Simon Heffer describes the finale as “an uplifting and soothing conclusion to [the] symphony”. I’d respectfully suggest that the performance of the first half of the Passacaglia is not soothing but his description is completely applicable to the remainder of the movement. In this performance the serene coda has a genuinely spiritual quality; the end of the symphony must have made a particularly strong impression on those privileged to hear it for the first time in the midst of all the turmoil and hardship of World War II. Once again, Lani Spahr has enabled us to hear the performance in remarkably good sound, which is blessedly free from distortion or intrusive surface noise. 

This is a remarkable archive set from SOMM. On the second disc we can experience VW leading two very fine performances of key works in his output with both recordings presented in enhanced and really very good sound. On the first disc we can hear two historic performances of great importance, again in remarkably good sound. Yes, there are gaps in both performances but don’t let that put you off. In particular, the rewards of an unprecedented opportunity to hear VW conduct the London Symphony are too great to pass by. Even if you already have the SOMM release of Dona Nobis Pacem and the 1952 account of the Fifth I would urge you to acquire this new set, both on account of the sonic enhancements to those two recordings and, even more pressingly, for the sake of the two performances recorded off air by Kenneth Leech.  All four recordings show just what a good conductor of his own music VW was. 

SOMM have documented this release admirably. A revised version of Alan Sanders’ note that accompanied the 2008 CD is included together with a brand-new essay by Simon Heffer: both are excellent. There are also useful notes by Andrew Neill and Lani Spahr giving background to the source material.

If you are a Vaughan Williams enthusiast and haven’t already acquired this important new set you should hasten to do so.

John Quinn

Previous review: Nick Barnard (November 2022)

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