Ralph Vaughan Williams
These recordings are also available separately on vinyl, all or in part, on London "LL" originals and "CM" reissue series, original Decca and Decca Ace of Clubs reissues, and CD on Decca and other labels.
LP Number: See below (out of print)
Note: I will be using "Decca" and "London" interchangeably in this review. So far as I know, English Decca did not release this group of performances in a single set.
Ralph Vaughan Williams, born in 1872, was raised in the southern part of England in Gloucestershire and Surrey. He wrote nine symphonies, published between 1909 and 1957. (The notes on this set incorrectly date the Sea Symphony from 1912.) The seven symphonies recorded here were composed 1903 through 1952, each typically having a gestation of several years. He was over eighty when he finished the Antartica [sic], the last of his symphonies included in this outstanding compilation from Decca. He still had another two left in him -- much to the chagrin of the producers of this set, I'm sure, and one reason for its relative rarity as a set. Even so, the London grouping is something of a legacy since the composer was present at the recordings.
The Decca mono recordings have some stiff competition in the much admired, well engineered complete EMI stereo set recorded 1967 to 72, in which Sir Adrian conducts both the London Philharmonic and New Philharmonia Orchestras. The EMI box includes five additional orchestral works, plus the two remaining symphonies RVW was able to complete, so it has obvious value for collectors.
Many esteem the Previn performances as well. Though a small detail, Previn's Sinfonia Antartica benefits from Sir Ralph Richardson reading the superscripts. Gielgud's relatively deadpan intonation in the Decca lacks the sense of awe and terror Sir Ralph rightly commands. According to the notes in the EMI set, however, neither is correct, since RVW prefers that the listener read the superscripts silently. This is a remarkable assertion considering Decca's claim that the recordings were made "in the presence of the composer." My personal preference is that their reading should be left out, especially on record. (Regretfully, I am omitting more detailed comparisons with the Previn for the purposes of this review, which focuses on the two Boult sets.)
Sir Adrian's approach to these symphonies altered not inconsiderably over the 12 to 15 years that separated the two recording projects. In the first cycle he couldn't help being influenced by proximity to the recent devastating world war; whereas the stereo group was recorded in more complacent times, Vietnam notwithstanding.
The Decca performances are overall much darker than the EMI--not fom any lack of high-frequency information (if anything, quite the reverse is true), but in mood. The contrasts between despair and hope are greater. Compared to the Decca monos, the EMI stereo performances convey a less violent Fourth; a less mysterious Sixth; a Pastoral more comforting, less alien; a London less boisterous; an Antartica [sic] less forbidding. The strange calm of the Epilogue to the Sixth is breathtaking in the mono; the overreaching arch of the Fifth less bumpy than the side trips in the EMI; the Sea Symphony is more inspired and has a sincerity that the relative pomposity of the EMI lacks (despite Sheila Armstrong's more secure soprano.)\
For those accustomed only to the lyrical, modal romanticism of the Tallis and Greensleeves Fantasias or The Lark Ascending, there will be some surprises in these symphonies: the majesty of the Sea Symphony, the austerity of the Sixth, the fierce violence of the Fourth, the bleak terrain of Antartica, plus the use of vocal soloists and chorus in the Sea and wordless soprano voice in the Pastoral.\
Boult is more willing to give us everything at once in the EMI set. In the Deccas he is more patient, holding things back until the music can no longer contain itself. The musical line is longer; the anticipation of resolution held in check longer, as we hold our breaths awaiting revelation.
There are performances where A Sea Symphony can come across as full of inflated self-worth. Not so in the Decca mono. Walt Whitman's soulful evocation of Man's relationship to the sea is fully realized. There is sincerity, commitment, adulation--but not vain self-importance. The chorus is especially fine. My one quibble is with soprano Isobel Baillie: a pretty enough voice, but less secure than she needs to be. Cameron's authoritative baritone is in complete command.
Vaughan Williams' second symphony, subtitled "A London Symphony", is one of EMI's benchmark stereo recordings: spacious with a deep stage, a wide frequency response and dynamic, uncluttered climaxes. This said, the Decca mono recorded over 50 years ago remains outstanding. Once you commit yourself to its particular view of sonic reality, the composer's homage to the big city on the Thames comes to life in ways that the stereo only hints at. Much of this results from Sir Adrian's intense reading, but credit must also be given to Decca's engineers, who permit us to delve deeply into the music's vibrant harmonic and dynamic textures. While the lower parts of the orchestra are not as clearly revealed as in the EMI stereo, the violin sound is stunning. In the slow movement, the older London is remote yet full of feeling, barely able to express itself.
Vaughan Williams' Pastoral Symphony, completed in 1921 on the heels of that most wasteful of European wars, is more about loss than the restfulness of an English countryside -- at least in the earlier Boult. That mono performance captures a sense of incredible sadness, yet hope, in ways too remote for the older Sir Adrian to grasp. It’s as if in the later version he's forgotten what it was all about.
For those whose familiarity with Vaughan Williams runs only to the Greensleeves and Tallis Fantasias or The Lark Ascending, you are in for something of a shock with the Fourth and Sixth Symphonies. They have a reputation for austerity and intensity that these performances certainly reinforce. Vaughan Williams often appears to be making up his music as he goes along: his architecture is not generally self-evident, static harmonic movement prevails, and endless melody spontaneously unfolds within shimmering orchestral textures. In Boult's hands, we always know where we are and how we got there, if not why.
This state of affairs is made all the more manifest in the Fourth and Sixth symphonies by virtue of their violence, spare melody and open, dissonant chord structures. They reveal their secrets only on repeated listening, but the endeavor is worth it, especially for the Fourth. The Sixth gets better as it goes along--much better, concluding with a 15-minute pianissimo "full of meaning and tension" as the composer rightly instructs in an epilogue of his own following the closing bars.
The Fifth Symphony, written just after the commencement of the war in Europe, is curiously peaceful. Whether hopeful or prophetic, who can say? Whatever the inspiration, his Fifth, which begins restlessly, eventually works its way, with only a couple of brief detours, through to a kind of contented resignation. Boult's Decca performance is deceptively subdued -- "held back" may be more accurate, as if something fearsome is waiting to be unleashed. He gives us a flash of that possibility in the second movement, and then later connects the huge swell in the third movement to the climax in the finale.
The Sinfonia Antartica is, along with the London, the most easily accessible for the listener. It ranks as one of the great tone poems for orchestra, filled with appropriate awe for one of the most hostile, striking and beautiful places on our planet. The younger Boult finds darkness within the ice landscapes, blinding light in the ravines, and respect, hope and fear in our future. The EMI doesn't bring us quite to the abyss.
The Incidental Music to The Wasps is the one disappointment in this set, better served elsewhere by Boult himself (Westminster WL 5228) with the Philharmonic Promenade Orchestra, and by Norman Del Mar on a great demo orchestral LP from EMI (ASD-3953). While the performance gets better as it goes along, Boult never seems to get the pulse quite right -- sometimes too hurried, at others too labored.
Comparing the sonics of the original LL editions to their later CM counterparts, I come down in favor of the earlier. The "LL" pressings are more dynamic, less processed, but also somewhat less refined. The orchestral sound on the "CM" pressings is usually thinner, though still enthralling. "CM" surfaces are generally quieter. And since I am not aware of separate releases of the original LL for other than the London and Pastoral Symphonies, I suspect that the only way to acquire the better renderings of the symphonies Sea, Antartica, and 4, 5 & 6 is in this Limited Edition, unless you can obtain the Decca originals or prefer to have them on CD.
As you are no doubt aware, London is the American face of English Decca, just as Angel is for EMI, and Decca for Deutsche Gramophone. While some many differ with me on this point, I find more appreciable differences between different masterings and reissues over the years than between Decca and London releases of the same generation. In other words, if there are differences, it is not because one is London and the other Decca.
The first London editions have the catalog prefix "LL." The first reissues are the "CM" series. [Later reissues are the London Treasury, of which there are two groups, one of them much to be preferred.] Take care to look at the lead-out groove, for not infrequently a "CM" will turn up in an "LL" sleeve. Not that there is anything wrong with the reissue -- far from it. You might even prefer them. But it's nice to know what you are paying for. The CM's employ a smaller font on the lead-out groove; the serial number is followed by an "R" for -- you guessed it -- "reissue."
There doesn't seem to be a catalogue number on the box or the booklet. All we have is the title and performers. Apparently, what makes this edition "Limited" is the label on the discs themselves. As near as I can make it out, most of these performances were recorded in 1953 or 1954. The London and Pastoral Symphonies were recorded at earlier dates and merged into this edition. All seven symphonies were recorded at Kingsway "in the presence of the composer." The labels on the discs themselves are unique to this edition.
The album numbers are as follows (followed in brackets by the serial number of the original source tape which identifies the precise order of recording.)
A Sea Symphony LL-972 [ARL-1973/74/75]
A London Symphony LL-569 [ARL-1169/70]
A Pastoral Symphony LL-721 [ARL-1489/90]
Symphony #4 in F Minor LL-974 [ARL-1977/78]
Symphony #5 in D Major LL-975 [ARL-1979/80]
Symphony #6 in E MinorLL-976 [ARL-1981/82]
Sinfonia Antartica LL-977 [ARL-1983/84]
Incidental Music to The Wasps LL-973 [ARL-1976]
N.B. These performances are also available on double CDs on Decca. And they are included as a set on Belart, which adds the Eighth, originally recorded by Decca in stereo.