The Pilgrim’s Progress

24 October, 2008

Pilgrim's Progress CD cover - Boult EMI

I recently took receipt of the 30 disc Ralph Vaughan Williams Collector’s Edition, and last night I listened to the Pilgrim’s Progress for the first time (Boult/EMI). (I was minded to buy this set after hearing a moment of the opera (during an interview with Hickox) on the Gramophone cover CD, which for once was useful!) I’m not an opera fan, and whenever I decide to explore the operas of a favourite composer, I usually find they have changed to an “operatic” style, but my hopes were high.

The first act of Progress seems to be the source of most of the music from his 5th symphony; combined with singing, it reminded me of Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’, and I wondered if RVW had heard this work. The second and third act were much more in a standard oratorio style, a method of choral drama which to be honest I find rather kitschy. I also began to weary of the recitative, and wish the opera was as melodic as his symphonies. And I began to wonder why an atheist would write a major work based on a religious tract – was it ultimately due to childhood nostalgia? I found I greatly sympathised with mild-mannered Mr. By-Ends, by the end of the “Morality” (that’s what RVW called it instead of an “opera”).

There seemed to be a certain musical monotony which made it difficult to sustain interest, and I think, in listening to the ‘out-takes’ on the second disc, I discovered partly why. When the orchestra was playing its parts alone, I found the music very colourful and interesting; same with the choral parts (although written in quite a churchy style). The problem was when the soloists came in – they swamped the soundstage. (And, as I said, didn’t have much of melodic interest to sing.) As I said, I don’t listen to much opera, but I have the feeling that spotlighting of vocal soloists is standard practice – ironically, it’s also a standard practice in the worst popular music, and I’m really sad that classical music producers don’t have higher standards.

So, apart from the problems of this unique work, I’m wondering: does the Hickox recording have a more natural soundstage? If so, I would certainly be interested in investigating that alternative. Can anyone compare the two recordings? Thanks.

(Another thought – how would Pilgrim’s Progress compare with Messaien’s St. Francis of Assisi?)

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