"A Composer Forever English, Cows and All"
The New York Times, July 13, 2008
Meant to be posted yesterday but delayed due to Typepad shenanigans, here's an article marking the 50th anniversary of the passing of English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. Specifically, the article focuses on two recent audio and video releases meant to mark the anniversary: O Thou Transcendent, an elaborate, imaginative documentary by filmmaker Tony Palmer, and The Collector's Edition, a budget-priced 30-CD boxed set from EMI Classics that contains the bulk of Vaughan Williams's output.
I started the article by examining variations of the well-worn trope comparing the music of Vaughan Williams, or one or another of his pieces, to some iteration of a bovine nature. Looking at the story on the Times web site, I couldn't help but notice that if you look at the top of your browser, there's a slight variation on the title the article was given: "A Composer Forever English, Cow Pats and All." (Emphasis added, of course.)
Anyone who follows this blog, and specifically the playlists that appear near the bottom of most posts, already knows that I'm a passionate admirer of Vaughan Williams's music. I've mentioned it several times here, at one point (if memory serves) stating that his nine symphonies constituted quite possibly the most overlooked major cycle of the 20th century. I still think so. I never get tired of these works.
There was, I admit, one thing I intended to include in the article that in the end didn't make it. Near the end, I call Vernon Handley's Royal Liverpool Philharmonic symphony cycle (which is included in The Collector's Edition) "perhaps the most consistently rewarding cycle available." That "perhaps" was unnecessary, I think; it's mostly there in deference to Adrian Boult, whose two cycles provide vital insight and no end of pleasure. Originally, I'd hoped to cite a few instances of important non-cycle symphony recordings, with which one could (and should) augment any cycle. In the end there was no space for that particular detour, so I think that could become a blog project.
Mainly, though, I'm surprised at myself for not finding a way to mention a piece I hold especially dear: the Symphony No. 8, without question the one that I go back to most frequently just for the sheer pleasure of it. Vaughan Williams wrote the piece between 1953 and 1955, when he was in his eighties; John Barbirolli, to whom it was dedicated, gave the first performance with his Hallé Orchestra in 1956, and recorded it soon after.
The first movement, Fantasia (Variazioni senza tema), opens with a gentle trumpet fanfare in rising fourths, followed by shimmering figures on vibraphone and celesta, a new melody on solo flute, and finally a surging melody in the strings. Rather than strictly developing these elements, Vaughan Williams proceeds through a series of variations, any one of which might have served as a source for the elements in the enigmatic opening sequence, which return in the end.
Scherzo alla marcia, the second movement, is scored for winds and brass alone, deployed with a confidence and style honed through his earlier writing for wind band -- Toccata marziale, Sea Songs and Variations are pieces with which any former band player will be familiar. The movement has plenty of charm, but in more successful performances those brittle trumpet fanfares ought to have something of Shostakovich's acidic bite, especially coming as they do on either side of a gentle trio section.
The third movement, Cavatina, is for strings only. The main theme of the movement bears a similarity to Bach's "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded," one of Vaughan Williams's relatively few clear nods to a composer whose works he must have known intimately, given a lifetime of work in church music and the British choral tradition. It's a characteristically gorgeous string reverie, with lovely solos for violin and cello.
Toccata, a boisterous finale that wavers between major and minor, includes a trio of tuned gongs, not an instrument closely associated with Vaughan Williams, Barbirolli or the Hallé. I'd often read that this was inspired by Puccini's Turandot, and in Tony Palmer's documentary Ursula Vaughan Williams explains the story: She compelled her husband to take her to a performance of the opera, but they were so late in acquiring tickets that they ended up on the front row overlooking the pit.
Vaughan Williams, Ursula said, spent much of the first act watching the percussionists, and at intermission sent her away to have a drink while he lingered to chat with the players. (She also noted that orchestra managers have been angry with her ever since: the gongs, she notes, are expensive to rent!) The final stretch of the symphony is a glorious orgy of clanging tubular bells, sweeping harp, splashing cymbal, rackety xylophone and regal brass.
If you've acquired the Handley cycle (or plan to), you're well set with his Eighth. Handey's tempos are on the fast side, but he has the work's variable character down pat. His ensemble plays well, and is exceptionally well recorded -- a critical element in this piece, with its wide dynamic range and diversity of timbres.
Anyone who loves this piece will also have to have Barbirolli's original recording from 1956. Sure, the Hallé could be a scrappy orchestra; the brasses blat and the strings aren't always altogether polished. But no other account is so robust and flavorful, and only in this recording -- made by the Mercury Living Presence team, and exceptional for its vintage -- do you hear the tuned gongs in the finale as Vaughan Williams meant them to be heard. (There are two live recordings by Barbirolli floating around, but the studio version, currently available on Dutton, is the one to get.)
Leonard Slatkin's Philharmonia Orchestra account for RCA Red Seal, out of print but not hard to track down, is the most exquisitely recorded version of the Eighth, and arguably the most deftly balanced. Slatkin lacks a bit in the charm department, but yields to no one in terms of clarity and atmosphere. (Honestly, Slatkin's entire cycle deserves to be reissued.)
Adrian Boult recorded the Eighth twice, first for Decca in 1956 and later for EMI in 1969, both times in stereo. The first version, while perhaps remarkable for its time, is no longer competitive from a sonic perspective and not an especially rewarding interpretation, either. The second version is much, much finer, a leisurely account with many telling details and a good honest recording. Only occasional noises and the clack of celeste keys preclude a recommendation as high as those for Handley, Barbirolli and Slatkin.
As for what's left: André Previn is a reliably fine interpreter of Vaughan Williams's music, but his Eighth, currently available in an otherwise highly recommended RCA box set, sounds rather bad -- some have suggested that the master tape was allowed to deteriorate. Bernard Haitink's London Philharmonic set is well recorded but more often than not a crashing bore, and that's certainly the case in his lugubrious Eighth. Richard Hickox, usually admirable in Vaughan Williams, doesn't get much out of the Eighth in his current Chandos recording.
Bryden Thomson's earlier Chandos cycle is solid enough; his Eighth is neither objectionable nor particularly special. Andrew Davis, on Warner Classics, plays around with the tempi a bit too liberally; balances downplay the more magical qualities, especially in the first movement, and the playing often lacks polish; on the other hand, Davis's Scherzo alla marcia is quite good. I don't know the Kees Bakels recording on Naxos particularly well, but apart from slightly driven tempi it does seem to be a solid, sane representation for the budget-minded. (I haven't heard the 1964 Stokowski recording with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in ages, and accordingly don't feel qualified to judge.)
I've come to seriously doubt that I'll ever get to hear a live performance of the Vaughan Williams Eighth, but for anyone who's curious, Mark Elder will be conducting the Hallé Orchestra in a performance of the work at the BBC Proms on July 29; the performance will be broadcast live on the Internet, and will be available for streaming for seven days afterward courtesy of BBC Radio 3.
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Symphony No. 8 - Philharmonia Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin (RCA); Hallé Orchestra/John Barbirolli (Dutton); London Philharmonic Orchestra/Adrian Boult (Decca); London Symphony Orchestra/André Previn (RCA); London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox (Chandos); London Symphony Orchestra/Bryden Thomson (Chandos); London Philharmonic Orchestra/Bernard Haitink (EMI Classics); Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley (EMI Classics); London Philharmonic Orchestra/Adrian Boult (EMI Classics); BBC Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Davis (Warner Classics); Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Kees Bakels (Naxos)
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