The two symphonies that Vaughan Williams wrote between the World Wars make a surprisingly frequent coupling on CD. Surprising, because the Pastoral Symphony would appear at any rate on the surface to be a peaceful meditation on the English countryside, while the Symphony in F minor written a decade later would seem to inhabit a totally different and contrasted world of violent conflict. But in fact, as Robert Matthew-Walker convincingly argues in his booklet notes with this new issue, both works are overshadowed by war and the threat of war – with the composer’s experiences in Flanders reflected not only in the distant bugle calls of the second movement of the Pastoral, but elsewhere in the haunting and shadowed textures of the music. By comparison, the more cogently organised Fourth Symphony (although it is a mistake to dismiss the Third as formless rhapsodising) must be viewed as a foreboding of the war-clouds beginning to gather in Europe, and attempts by some critics to treat it as a more personal reaction to VW’s own circumstances do not really address the manner in which the jaunty military music especially in the final movement is persistently overwhelmed by the grindingly strident semitonal discords which both begin and end the symphony.
I first made the acquaintance of the Third Symphony in the integral set of the VW symphonies set down on LP for Decca by Sir Adrian Boult during the last decade of the composer’s life. Vaughan Williams himself attended the recording sessions (a whistling noise from his hearing aid apparently disrupted proceedings at one point, and mystified the engineers) and the performance must be regarded as representing his intentions, as indeed must Sir Adrian’s stereo remake (in warmer sound, without the sometimes papery Decca strings) for EMI in the 1960s. The next recording to appear, part of André Previn’s cycle for RCA, clarified the lines and textures somewhat but otherwise—like Boult—allowed the music to unfold at its own leisurely pace. This new reading from Martyn Brabbins sometimes sounds very slightly impatient during the first movement, as if the conductor is anxious to avoid any suggestion of a pastoral wallow; but it does not fall into the trap (into which some other more recent interpreters have plunged headlong) of attempting to insert a sense of formal urgency into the music. And Brabbins certainly scores in the second movement with his distant placement of the offstage natural trumpet—the bugle call which inspired the composer here assumes an almost dream-like heavenly quality, and the sudden eruption of the orchestra at the end comes as quite a dramatic shock. ‘Bugles calling to them from sad shires’ indeed. The third movement, with its almost scherzo-like suggestion of a country dance, is given a precision of rhythm which helps to highlight the sometimes wayward nature of the shadowy music; and the finale, launched with an atmospherically remote soprano solo, has a sense of expansive rapture which provides a superbly judged conclusion. In the final bars Elizabeth Watts fades into distance with a sense of magic which recalls Heather Harper (in Previn’s version), a moment of enchantment which demands that the listener take a pause for reflection and meditation.
Unfortunately that pause is all too quickly interrupted by the volcanic eruption of the brass at the outset of the Fourth Symphony (one might have complained about the short time of the allotted silence, were it not for the fact that the CD already strains at the technical borders of duration). It has become a critical cliché to compare recordings of this work to the composer’s own account set down on 78s very shortly after the première and rarely out of the catalogues since. Like most such reputations it is only partly justified. There is indeed a unique sense of violence and chaos in the performance, but I suspect that much of this is due to the fact that the players are unaccustomed to such music and are literally hanging onto the beat by the seat of their pants (and sometimes conspicuously failing to do so). Even Boult’s players in the 1950s and 1960s show a level of imprecision—the very first chord in the stereo version is hardly together in any meaningful sense at all—and Previn’s RCA version too displays a sense of caution in the remarkably slow pace he adopts for the first movement. Standards of playing have improved over the years, as indeed has familiarity with the music, and the players of the BBC Symphony Orchestra here show a positive sense of relish in the passages regarding careful co-ordination in a manner that completely eluded their predecessors playing for the composer in the 1930s. Indeed, the sense of danger so apparent in earlier recordings has now almost totally disappeared, and instead we must console ourselves with the enjoyment of a performance which positively sparkles in the oom-pah rhythms of the finale while allowing the many other sections of unease and disquiet to make their mark as required.
I liked these performances very much, in large measure because they avoided the pitfalls of those conductors who try to put a specific individual stamp on the music. In many ways they form a modern counterpoint to the old Boult readings, and this is all the more welcome in that we know those recordings had the approval of the composer himself. But of course, potential purchasers may already have (possibly several) versions of these symphonies in their libraries, and it is therefore of some importance to note that this new CD contains a work of no small significance. (It is odd therefore that the BBC in their review of the disc on Record Review made no mention whatsoever of this item, and that Jeremy Dibble in his review for BBC Music Magazine gave it only a passing mention.) I should explain.
In recent years, the prolific output of Vaughan Williams has been copiously excavated and—despite his immense output—I think that most of his music must now be available on record, including a vast volume of works written for specific occasions or amateur performers as well as a large catalogue of pieces dating from his long years of apprenticeship. Many of these have been worthwhile discoveries, not least for the light that they shed on better-known works; and some, such as the second Norfolk Rhapsody, have been real finds. But what we have on this disc is something very unusual: a sketched cantata, written at the height of the composer’s powers in the wake of the London Symphony and The lark ascending, which has never been performed or recorded in any form. Its history is somewhat unusual. It was written at a time when VW was supplying incidental music for Shakespeare plays being performed at Stratford, and when a presentation of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus was being considered. The production never took place, and the cantata clearly cannot have been intended for stage performance in this context since it employs a solo tenor and full chorus to sing Faustus’s words when addressing Helen of Troy—‘Is this the face that launched a thousand ships.’ It may well be, as Robert Matthew-Walker suggests, that VW abandoned the setting when he realised that the orchestral introduction of nearly four minutes would completely outbalance the vocal work (with its relatively short text) in a manner that would make performance impractical. Or it may be that he left the work incomplete when he went off to the First World War; and, unlike The lark ascending, it never emerged from his desk when he returned.
Mind you, Robert Matthew-Walker is maddeningly imprecise about precisely what state the VW manuscript was in when it was abandoned. He informs us that Martyn Brabbins has had to complete and orchestrate the music, with some indication that at least some of the orchestration had been already undertaken by the composer but with no information as to whether Brabbins himself has had to actually compose any music to fill in gaps in the sketches. If this has been necessary, the joins do not show (as they did in David Matthews’s completion of the sketches for the VW cello concerto that emerged some years ago) but it does raise some questions about some of the elements in the music. Robert Matthew-Walker draws the listener’s attention to passages which seem to anticipate the Serenade to Music composed some 24 years later (also employing a Tudor text), but there are also passages which seem to me to suggest the Spenser setting The bridal day (written originally in 1938-9 but not reaching its final form until the Epithalamium nearly twenty years later again). The melismatic style of the writing for solo tenor pre-echoes the writing for solo voices in the Magnificat and Benedicite, and one choral passage at the end also hints at the fourth of the Five Tudor portraits. The Epithalamium parallels are emphasised by the fact that both passages consist of a direct address to a beautiful woman, although Marlowe’s poetry is more emotionally engaging than Spenser’s formal diction in ‘Fair child of beauty’. If all these elements were actually present in VW’s 1914 sketches, the so-called Saraband ‘Helen’ is a remarkable work indeed. If they have been introduced as part of his ‘realization’ by Brabbins, they show a most successful attempt to encapsulate the VW style. Either way devotees of the composer will have to hear this piece.
The quality of this recording is excellent throughout, and the booklet presentation with the notes by Robert Matthew-Walker (including translations into French and German) is ideal, even though the text of the Marlowe is supplied in English only; I would imagine that translations of the play into other languages are readily available.