Notes and Editorial Reviews
For years consumers had two choices in this music (at least in stereo): Previn (RCA) and Boult (EMI). Neither was perfect, and for the same reason. Both started and ended well, but faded in the middle, particularly in the Fourth and Sixth Symphonies. Boult’s relative placidity was not unexpected, but Previn’s certainly was. Then the CD era burst upon us; but their labels continued to push Boult and Previn even when new cycles joined them from Naxos, Teldec, Chandos (twice), EMI (again, twice) and RCA (again). The best of these were the sets directed by Vernon Handley and Leonard Slatkin respectively, and between them Slatkin’s takes the prize.
Slatkin makes one small miscalculation: his tempo in the first movement of “A London Symphony” is a bit too quick to convey all of the music’s savagery, but short of that these are all splendid performances. In particular, he absolutely nails the Fourth and Sixth Symphonies. They equal anything currently available. Handley offers a marvelous Second Symphony, but his middle period works, Nos. 3-6, good as they are interpretively, suffer from some odd balances (in “A Pastoral Symphony” especially) and diffuse recorded sound. The Fifth Symphony, in particular, was recorded at a very low level that hardly benefits this predominantly gentle piece.
Slatkin’s Fifth, by contrast, is a highlight of the set. His “Pastoral” Symphony too combines Previn’s incisiveness with Boult’s more flowing tempos. The “Antartica” really glitters and features some spectacular sonics in its third movement. Slatkin gets the percussion timbres in the finale of the Eighth just right, and his Ninth has unusual vitality and rhythmic force. The fillers are also uniformly well done, and include some of Vaughan Williams finest short works (Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1, Tallis Fantasia, and the Five Variants of “Dives and Lazarus”). In short, fans of the composer are spoiled for choice, but this inexpensive reissue should form the centerpiece of your collection.
-- David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com