Since September 2010, this blog has recorded the journey of this middle-aged man as I attempt to listen to all the music in my CD collection. CDs revisited in their entirety from start to finish - no skipping tracks, no shuffle. CDs only - no vinyl, no tapes, no downloads. And just as CD technology (and the album format itself) becomes obsolete. I'm no music critic, just a music junkie with too much time on my hands.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Ralph Vaughan Williams - The 9 Symphonies (2003)

André Previn conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.

I was mostly unfamiliar with Vaughan Williams' symphonies, but enjoyed his works that I had heard (particularly Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and English Folk Song Suite) so I figured that I'd give this 6 disc budget-priced compilation a shot.  Many of these works are rarely played outside of Vaughan Williams' native England.  Turns out, there's a basis for such program selection: obscure works are usually obscure for a reason.

I can't find any definitive information about the recordings, but circumstantial evidence suggests these discs were compiled from analog recordings made early in Previn's tenure as principal conductor of the LSO from 1968-1979.

Disc 1: A Sea Symphony (premiered 1910)

More of a oratorio than a proper symphony.  There are some beautiful sections in this work, but they don't last nearly long enough because the lyrics (Walt Whitman poetry) require the music to go in another direction so there isn't enough thematic development for my ears.  The second movement, titled "On The Beach At Night, Alone" is gorgeous.  I find the other movements to be bombastic and overly dramatic.

Disc 2: Symphony No. 2 "A London Symphony" (premiered 1914)

A more pleasant work than the previous symphony.  Despite the title, Vaughan Williams insisted this wasn't a programmatic work, suggesting a better titled might have been "Symphony by a Londoner."  I like the use of the folk songs here, particularly in the first movement.  The scherzo is a fun romp, but again, the second movement is the winner here.

Concerto Accademico for Violin and Orchestra in D Minor (premiered 1925)

A nice enough work.  I'm simply not fond of violin concerti.  Too screechy.

The Wasps: Overture (premiered 1909)

In 1909, Vaughan Williams composed incidental music for a production of Aristophanes' The Wasps at Cambridge University. Like most overtures, this overture is a collection of themes that appear through the play.  Again, folk song themes are prevalent.  A lively, enjoyable piece. At 9 minutes in length, I'm surprised I don't see this see this as a concert program opener more often.

Disc 3: Symphony No. 3 "A Pastoral Symphony" (premiered 1922)

A gorgeous, lyrical, serene work, reminiscent of the composer's Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.  Vaughan Williams served in France in World War I and this music is meant to invoke the fields of France.  As such, it serves as beautiful elegy for he lives lost in the war.  Vaughan Williams had a true talent for harmony and sonority; those gifts are on full display in this symphony.  This symphony is so beautiful I don't even mind the soprano part.

Symphony No. 4 (premiered 1935)

By contrast, this symphony is dissonant and strident.  It's noisy and never seems to get anywhere.  It is as far from the Pastoral Symphony as possible.  This ain't pretty, folks.  Even the composer himself is to have said, "I'm not at all sure that I like it myself now. All I know is that it's what I wanted to do at the time."

Disc 4: Symphony No. 5 (premiered 1943)

Aaron Copland is reported to have commented, "Listening to the Fifth Symphony of Ralph Vaughan Williams is like staring at a cow for forty-five minutes"  That may be a little extreme, but this work softly meanders about for the first 3 movements, very rarely utilizing any instruments other than strings. Things get better in the final movement, but only slightly.  Vaughan Williams recycled material from his opera, The Pilgrim's Progress, but it's my opinion that you can't plagiarize from yourself (guess how well that opinion goes over in my day job in academia).  This piece's quiet serenity makes it perfect for relaxing, but as Copland suggests, it doesn't hold up to active listening.

Three Portraits from "The England of Elizabeth" (premiered 1957)

A suite of three brief pieces derived from Vaughan Williams' soundtrack to a 1957 documentary about the Elizabethan age.  Like most soundtrack music, this is mood music written to be ignored for the most part.  While Vaughan Williams strives for a Tudor sound here, the lack of any memorable melodies explains why this suite is a rarity.  It's not unpleasant at all (there are some nice sections in the second movement); I'd like to see it in the context of the documentary.

Concerto for Bass Tuba and Orchestra (premiered 1954)

A fun concerto that has become a workhorse of the tuba repertoire.  And deservedly so.  Very upbeat and good natured.  In this recording, soloist John Fletcher shines.

Disc 5: Symphony No. 6 (premiered 1948)

This is the first time I can recall hearing this symphony and it's the first one I've heard in this set that I think deserves additional study.  It isn't necessarily the most pleasant thing to listen to, but there's some interesting stuff going on tonally and rhythmically.  Plus, it sounds like it would be great fun to perform.

Symphony No. 9 (premiered 1958)

Vaughan Williams' final symphony gets bonus points for utilizing flugelhorn and saxophone in its instrumentation. The best description of the work I've found comes from New York Times critic Harold C. Schoenberg who wrote that "a mellow glow suffuses the work."  I'm not terribly fond of the 3rd movement (Scherzo: Allegro pesante), but the rest is a beautifully scored lesson in instrumentation and sonority.

Disc 6: Symphony No. 7 "Sinfonia Antartica" (premiered 1953)

In 1947, Vaughan Williams composed the music for the film Scott of the Antarctic and later incorporated much of that film music into this symphony.  Because of the tragic source material, this is interesting program music to be sure, particularly the creepy use of wordless female vocals in the first and last movements.  I like the second movement, but overall, listening to this symphony makes me uncomfortable (which may have been the point all along, but still...)

Symphony No. 8 (premiered 1956)

This brief symphony (clocking in here at 28:34) is most notable for using only wind instruments in the second movement and string instruments in the gorgeous third movement.  There's some interesting experimentation with sonority and instrumentation throughout.  However, like many of the pieces here, the lack of memorable melody hampers the quality of the work.

Personal Memory Associated with this CD: None

Previously revisited for the blog:
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1981)

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