VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Symphonies Nos. 5 and 7 “Sinfonia Antarctica”1 • Bernard Haitink, cond; 1Sheila Armstrong (sop); London PO & 1Ch • LPO 0072 (2 CDs: 85:43) Live: London 12/15/94; 1London 11/27/84
Seized by a perverse fit of enthusiasm, I decided to use the occasion ofRead more this review to listen to all my recordings of the Fifth Symphony, those of Kees Bakels, Adrian Boult (no. 2), Andrew Davis, Mark Elder, Vernon Handley, Richard Hickox, Neville Marriner, Roger Norrington, André Previn (no. 1), Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Leonard Slatkin, Robert Spano, and Bryden Thomson, not to mention Haitink’s studio recording, made around the same time as this BBC broadcast. Some people may already know that Vaughan Williams drew upon themes from his setting of Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, especially in the third movement. These themes are featured prominently in the section of The Pilgrim’s Progress called “The House Beautiful.” Actually, the only movement in the Symphony that has no references to previous compositions is the Scherzo. At the time the Symphony was being composed, Vaughan Williams had put The Pilgrim’s Progress aside, assuming he would never finish it, hence the decision not to waste some beautiful music. It may seem odd that such radiant, generally tranquil music, admittedly with some restless undertones, could be composed during the height of World War II, but there it is. I have, for quite some time, believed that the easiest Vaughan Williams symphonies to bring off, assuming technical competence, are this one and the Sinfonia Antarctica. Vaughan Williams has done most of the work for you. Maybe this is why I was, allowing for a few warts, quite satisfied with all the recordings of the Fifth that I auditioned (I decided not to duplicate the feat with the Sinfonia Antarctica.). Haitink’s two Fifths are both perfectly good ones with the live one having, perhaps, an extra undercurrent of restlessness but, on the whole, I prefer the studio recording: It has a bit more detail and a better stereo spread. In any event, this seems to be a symphony where it hardly matters which recording you purchase.
I’d be tempted to say that about the Seventh Symphony, too (Vaughan Williams didn’t actually start numbering his symphonies until he arrived at number Eight!). There are many perfectly satisfactory recordings of which, I might add, Haitink’s studio recording is my narrow favorite. This live one is, perhaps, a little more restless but I, once again, prefer the excellent sound of the studio recording. I might point out that Vaughan Williams suggested 42 minutes as an appropriate duration for a performance; Haitink’s performances come within seconds of that. Vaughan Williams’s score, in addition to the standard instruments, calls for a huge percussion section, plus a celesta, piano, and an organ. There are also a soprano soloist and small women’s chorus. Much of the thematic material comes from the music Vaughan Williams wrote for the film Scott of the Antarctic. Apparently, his imagination was so stimulated by this experience (only half of what he composed is heard in the film) that he felt impelled to use some of the music in a symphony, and the result is a really chilling evocation of that forbidding, hostile wasteland. Some early recordings of the Symphony use a narrator to speak the verses that are associated with each movement in the score, but they are not actually mandatory and I, for one, can get along without them. The only recording I would warn you off is only likely to turn up in a used CD browsing bin, that of Raymond Leppard and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. It’s actually quite a terrific performance, per se, with vivid sound but, thanks to an offhand suggestion by Vaughan Williams, someone (probably Leppard himself) had the “inspiration” of substituting excerpts from the ill-fated Captain Scott’s diary for the composer’s original choices (he uses a brief excerpt from it to precede the Finale) and having them read, in some cases, while the music pauses, a truly lame idea which ruins an otherwise splendid effort. I went into more detail about this in Fanfare 17:1.
Symphony no 5 in D majorby Ralph Vaughan Williams Conductor:
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century Written: 1938-1943; England
Symphony no 7 "Sinfonia antartica"by Ralph Vaughan Williams Performer:
Sheila Armstrong (Soprano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra,
London Philharmonic Choir
Period: 20th Century Written: 1949-1952; England
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
Icy Vaughan WilliamsOctober 29, 2013By Joseph Lieber, MD (Great Neck, NY)See All My Reviews"Well, not really icy!The symphony number 7 comes off beautifully with the shimmering of the glaciers and the cold. Ms. Armstrong's wordless singing is great and the orchestral playing is excellent. The warmer symphony number 5 is also well done."Report Abuse