Martyn Brabbins has reached the halfway point in his Hyperion/BBCSO Vaughan Williams Symphony cycle and his account of the solace-giving and transcending Fifth (first heard in 1943, the composer conducting) is as notable as the first four are in terms of performance and recording.
VW5 has come my way quite a bit recently (no hardship), including Boult’s early-1950s version, Manze, and Collins, although to my shame, Elder’s Hallé version remains unopened, a wrong I must right.
Brabbins’s view of Symphony 5 is absorbing and spot-on in terms of tempo, transitions, phrasing and closely observed detailing and dynamics, structurally seamless from distant horizons to organically arrived-at ecstatic climaxes, the BBCSO opulent and sensitive in response, beautifully recorded by Simon Eadon and flawlessly produced by Andrew Keener. In particular, the ‘Romanza’ third movement is especially rapt.
When one considers the competition in this work from such VW luminaries as Barbirolli, Boult, Andrew Davis, Gibson, Haitink, Handley, Previn, Rozhdestvensky and Slatkin (none of which I would want to be without), I can only say that—at this moment—I would most miss Brabbins and the recent Michael Collins.
The rest of Hyperion’s release is devoted to 'Vaughan Williams’s incidental music for The Pilgrim’s Progress [which] has seldom been heard in its original guise since the 1906 premiere' and—cue Robert Matthew-Walker (booklet-note writer)—'now for the first time in the history of recording we can hear his initial musical reactions to the book which was to inspire him for almost half a century. The result in 1906 was a multi-faceted score …'
Such inspiration embraced an opera (VW preferred the designation of 'Morality'), which musically sometimes corresponds with Symphony 5 (the composer feared he would never finish the stage-work). Scenes adapted from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is an enjoyable sequence of songs, dances and hymn-tunes that makes for diverting listening, not least from folk-singer Emily Portman.
Roll-on Symphonies 6 to 9, so far unrecorded by Brabbins, but with current Covid restrictions, which seem set to become even more draconian, one can only wonder when sessions with a full-size BBCSO can take place …