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ON THE RECORD

A Ralph Vaughan Williams Revival?

June 21, 1987|HERBERT GLASS

English art music of the first half of the 20th Century can be conveniently divided into that which follows Continental models--e.g., Edward Elgar's, with its primary inspiration in Brahms--and the native folk strain, exemplified in the works of Ralph Vaughan Williams.

At present, it is Elgar who is having his day outside his native borders, thanks in large part to the advocacy of such international conducting celebrities as Sir Georg Solti, Bernard Haitink, Colin Davis and Andre Previn.

The more parochial muse of Vaughan Williams is yet to be the object of such high-powered advocacy. If Vaughan Williams fails to find his larger audience, it will not, however, be the fault of the recording companies, who are showing unprecedented interest in this relatively esoteric figure.

Vaughan Williams' nine symphonies, created between 1909 and 1957, the next-to-last year of his life, are now all available on Angel compact discs, their source being the 1967-70 cycle conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, who leads the London Philharmonic and New Philharmonia Orchestra.

No conductor was more closely identified with this repertory than Boult and, in fact, it brought out a liveliness in his temperament not often apparent elsewhere.

Boult's direction of the symphonies is consistently vigorous and finely detailed, from the galumphing "Sea Symphony" of 1909 (Angel 7212), the composer's first, to the richly evocative "London Symphony" (7213), flavored in equal parts by London street songs and the Impressionism of Debussy, and to the cryptic "Pastoral" Symphony, No. 3. The latter conjures up a humid "Tess of the d'Urbervilles" summer landscape, sharing a CD (7214) with No. 5, the most sumptuously lyrical of the nine.

The acerbic Fourth Symphony, written under the influence of the composer's disdainful view of emergent fascism, finds Vaughan Williams uneasily experimenting with a mixture of English folk-song modalities and Prokofiev-like dissonance. Its disc-mate (on Angel 7215) is the darkly haunting Sixth Symphony, written during the depths of World War II.

Number 7, "Sinfonia antartica" (7216), is all mood and atmosphere--no songs, no dances, just great masses of sound, eerie silences, subtly skewed tonalities and, as in the Third Symphony, a misty, wordless soprano solo (Margaret Price in No. 3, Norma Burrowes in No. 7).

The Eighth and Ninth symphonies (7217), dating from 1955 and 1957, respectively, are hollow shells, imaginatively orchestrated. The composer, with little left to say, was seemingly intent nonetheless on winding up, at age 83, with the symphonist's magic number of nine, to put him in the company of Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner and Mahler.

EMI-Angel's original vinyl discs of the Vaughan Williams nine were sonic dazzlers in their time. They sound even better on digital CDs, as clean-textured as Boult's interpretations and splendidly resonant. It should be noted, too, that a couple of valuable Vaughan Williams/Boult bonuses are included: the youthful, incidental music to Aristophanes' "The Wasps" (with "Sinfonia antartica") and the mighty "Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis" (with "A London Symphony").

It is clearly open season on "Tallis," the eloquent masterpiece for string orchestra that made Vaughan Williams' international reputation when it was introduced in 1910.

In addition to the aforementioned Boult version--noble, darkly intense, if hardly the last word in polished execution--there is the even more massive (and roughly executed) one by the Sinfonia of London under another celebrated Vaughan Williams interpreter, Sir John Barbirolli (with music by Elgar, Angel 7537, CD only).

New York's excellent, conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra offers a prettified, unincisive "Tallis" as part of a Vaughan Williams/Elgar program (Deutsche Grammophon 419 191, LP or CD) that virtually duplicates the more idiomatically performed Barbirolli concert for Angel.

Some unfamiliar names, the English String Orchestra conducted by William Boughton, offer adequate versions of "Tallis" and the hardly less lovely, much less frequently heard "Five Variants on 'Dives and Lazarus' " (an old English hymn tune) and an ungainly performance of the late Concerto Grosso for strings.

Plus a treasure: the 1944 Oboe Concerto, one of those elegant pastorals of the composer's that, while being thoroughly of this century harmonically, is also able to conjure up images of the Elizabethan court and countryside.

The present performance, by the astonishingly virtuosic Maurice Bourgue, with elegant support from Boughton and his orchestra, sounds like the last, most gracious word on the subject (Nimbus 5019, CD only).

The music of Vaughan Williams' younger contemporary, the cosmopolitan William Walton, has long been prominent in the repertory of Andre Previn, whose 1960s recording with the London Symphony of Walton's vast, overreaching, rather Sibelius-ish and hugely exciting First Symphony of 1934 was one of the glories of the RCA catalogue.

Alas, Previn's new version (Telarc 80125, CD only) is a dud: slowly paced, rhythmically flabby, undernourished in tone and temperament. Nor is there a trace of grandeur in the slack Previn/RPO performances of Walton's almost inevitably sure-fire coronation marches, "Orb and Sceptre" and "Crown Imperial."

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