Vaughan Williams: Symphonies Nos 3 & 4 / Previn, London So

Release Date: 8/21/1990
Label: Sony
Catalog Number: 605832RG
Conductor: André Previn
Orchestra/Ensemble: London Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1

Physical Format:

Notes and Editorial Reviews
The “Pastoral,” taped in Kingsway Hall in 1972, may be Previn’s finest studio recording. With the London Symphony, it marked the high point of his Vaughan Williams cycle, made for RCA with some of the Decca staff. Objectively better played than my favourite, mono Boult version, it is also slower, except in the second movement. The influence of Ravel’s Mother Goose is clear at the start, and later in the finale. Previn elevated the work, through this recording, to the status of a major European symphonic masterpiece. The sound, despite some analog hiss, is extremely beautiful, as is all the wind-playing. The interpretation is cool and intense rather than atmospheric and characterful in the Boult manner. By this stage of his career, Previn had mastered the art of steering a whole work towards a single climax, and the violin fortissimo at the finale’s peak is very moving. The LSO was at a peak too, with a roster of international soloists at the first desks, and no sign of the supposed “decline” that helped lead to Previn’s departure a few years later.

The Moderato pesante was rescued by Previn from the usual English folk-dancing connotations through the use of a steady tempo and a sustained symphonic line all through. The music had never sounded this powerful before, almost bitter, a sign that the conductor had seen into the deep, requiem-like qualities of the whole symphony. After that, the scurrying coda sounds more like rats in the trenches than woodland animals. Real tragedy and heroism then break through in the Lento. Heather Harper is heard close to her best, with tympani, launching the composer’s finest stretch of emotionally and visually imaginative orchestral writing on the ascent to a very Ravelian summit.

The Fourth Symphony was something of a Previn/LSO party-piece by the early 1970s, and Previn declared it the greatest of the cycle (I feel the Third has the edge). When this reading (actually taped in 1969) was first released, it was compared unfavorably with their live accounts of the day, which had fire and venom to rival the composer’s famous recording. In fact, there is more light and shade here in the studio, and the playing is outstandingly sharp, better even than in the “Pastoral,” especially from the strings. Heard 30 years on, the RCA tapes now seem an important historical document, placing the Fourth in the centre of the European Sturm und Drang tradition, and at the top of the 20th-century heap in that symphonic sub-genre. Previn really has the measure of this work, and his was the first modern recording of it to avoid any sense of caricature and to concentrate on the symphonic magnificence. It is a tremendous sound, superbly recorded by any standards, with real presence in the heavy brass. Heard together, as here, these symphonies might suggest Vaughan Williams as a candidate for the greatest-symphonist-since-Sibelius vacancy. Britten, sometimes dismissive of RVW, quarried the Andante moderato of the Fourth for his own Sinfonia da requiem, and you’d swear Prokofiev must have heard it before writing his Fifth. These Previn recordings come and go. The RCA single disc is still listed, but the whole Previn cycle was recently re-released in a bargain box: not to be missed. Whatever the format, these performances, especially the “Pastoral,” belong in every 20th-century Hall of Fame.

Paul Ingram, FANFARE
Works on This Recording
1. Symphony no 3 "Pastoral" by Ralph Vaughan Williams
Performer: John Georgiadis (Violin), Osian Ellis (Harp ), Heather Harper (Soprano), Gervase de Peyer (Clarinet), William [flute] Bennett (Flute)
Conductor: André Previn
Orchestra/Ensemble: London Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1921 ; England
2. Symphony no 4 in F minor by Ralph Vaughan Williams
Conductor: André Previn
Orchestra/Ensemble: London Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1931-1934 ; England
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