Michael Wilkinson
MusicWeb International
January 2021

This is a very special recording, an essential buy for those of us who love Vaughan Williams, not only for its magnificence but also for its unique content.

A great joy in recent times has been Martyn Brabbins’ slowly unfolding Vaughan Williams cycle. Among its splendid qualities has been the choice of fillers, and the new release is no exception.

The Fifth Symphony is known for its quotations from Pilgrim’s Progress, a work which took the composer rather longer to write than the Pilgrim needed in his trek to the Celestial City. It was first staged at Covent Garden in 1951, while the Symphony premiered in 1943. But the gestation period was much longer. In 1906, Vaughan Williams prepared a dramatised version for performance, in 12 scenes, at Reigate Priory, to a text by Evelyn Ouless. (In the final version, texts were by largely by Vaughan Williams, with contributions by his wife, Ursula). It is this 1906 version which is recorded here, for the first time. Differences in text and music from the final opera (or, strictly, Morality) are of much more than scholarly interest—the ‘Scenes’ are a coherent and highly enjoyable work. In this music, Martyn Brabbins has form: he is one of the few conductors to have conducted a fully staged version of Pilgrim’s Progress, at English National Opera in 2012. I was not much enthused by Yoshi Oida’s production, but Brabbins’ handling of the score was revelatory.

So too is this performance of the Fifth Symphony. Brabbins has the confidence and the insight to allow the music to unfold at its own pace. This is ultimately a very spiritual work, meditative especially in the final two movements, but one which demands concentration for its subtle mood-shifts. Where, in his recording, Andrew Manze (ONYX 4184), tends—at least to my ears (and other listeners may disagree)—to press a little too hard, Brabbins maintains tension while allowing time for the music to breathe. The nearest comparison I could make is with Vernon Handley’s 1986 recording, which has similar timings. Like his mentor, Adrian Boult (1970), Handley is brisker in the Romanza third movement, but neither was given to lingering slow movements. At times, Handley is more powerful in expression (and, by a whisker, remains my first choice), but the sound quality is notably inferior to that achieved by the Hyperion engineers. Simon Eadon and his team capture Brabbins’ and Vaughan Williams’ careful terracing of the orchestra. The BBC Symphony Orchestra are in sparkling form. This is the finest modern recording of the Symphony I have heard.

The ‘Scenes’ bring their own joys, and one has the sense of meticulous preparation capturing both the excitement and religious undertones of the work. Here the hero is Bunyan’s Christian, not the more generalised ‘Pilgrim’ of the completed Morality. Connections to the hymnal are evident. Like the finished 1951 work, the opening is a strong setting of ‘York’, the hymn tune. Later, Vaughan Williams’ own hymn tune, ‘Monks Gate’ appears as the Orchestral interludes are as striking as one might wish. A highlight is the folk voice of Emily Portman in the lovely Flower-girl’s song. In this song, which has no accompaniment, she captures the sense of disappointed youthful wishes with charming simplicity.

A triumph for all concerned. We should be grateful.