Survey of recordings of Vaughan Williams symphonies

2 February, 2009

My Vaughan Williams collection isn’t comprehensive but it is pretty deep. Apart from various singles (too many to list), I have a number of the complete sets, except for:
Boult(Decca) – I’m not generally a fan of Boult; I already have his EMI set, and don’t wish to invest in another set, with inferior sound, and performances probably not much different.
Slatkin – this set is completely out of print.
Bakels/Daniel – The best CD contains 7 and 8 (excellent/good), but what I’ve heard of the rest of the cycle (2, 5 & 9) is unimpressive.
Norrington – recorded several of the symphonies; none of these recordings are in print.
Davis – reviewers panned this set, except for 6, which I have.

Of the complete sets I have, I would order them this way:


I put Previn first because his 7th is probably the best on record, while Handley’s is the failure of his set, being brash and superficial (I wouldn’t rate any of Previn’s performances as failures – 6 is his weakest; otherwise I usually prefer him to Handley for his warmth and care with detail). Haitink is warmly played and efficiently managed but often borders on bland and dull. Boult’s “authority” in this music is often touted (he knew the composer and recorded the first complete cycle of symphonies), but in his EMI set he has the worst orchestra (except in 3, 4 and 6), the most unnatural sound, and a heavily “macho” style too often at odds with the music, or at least insufficient to its content – he is best in the darkness of 6, worst in the celebratory 8. Thomson is always broad and monolithic, and too often seems to have nothing to say, but his 5 and 8 are excellent; 6 and 9 have their qualities.

Finally, a caveat: I will not rate the Sea Symphony, as its kitschy Victorian atmosphere has thus far appealed to me not at all. If you think you will enjoy a cantata which begins “Behold – the SEEEEAAAA!!!!!!!!”, then by all means investigate it yourself.


Symphony No. 2 “London”

An exciting and poetic depiction of London in the composer’s time (before WWI). Some rate this Edwardian monument as Vaughan Williams’ best symphony (as his first “proper” symphonic achievement, it was the composer’s favourite), but it’s less individual than his later works. Previn (LSO/RCA) is excellent, unmatched in detail and shaping. The others lack atmosphere in comparison. His remake is also good, but may be too amorphous for some.

Symphony No. 3 “Pastoral”

Inspired by the ruined landscape of France during World War 1, this “symphony in four movements, three of them slow” (RVW) is subtle and introspective; definitely not Edwardian. Previn is great, Handley is great, Boult is typically powerful but surprisingly sensitive, albeit swifter than most.

Symphony No. 4

Vaughan William’s most overtly “Modern” work, this most strident symphony begins with a crisis and ends with a slammed door. Previn is powerful but perhaps a little slow for some. Handley is less inhibited, but perhaps lacking a little in character. Boult is good and quite fierce (albeit in unnatural sound) but lacks energy in the 4th movement. Apparently his earlier version is superior, but in trebly early-1950s sound. Berglund in this and 6 is good but ultimately too generalised.

Symphony No. 5

Perhaps VW’s most beautiful symphony. Beginning with this symphony, VW became a “serious” symphonist (whereas previously it was only an occasional inclination). Previn is very emotional, Handley is more spiritual, Thomson (best of his set, along with 8) is transcendant; they are all very fine. Boult is good but a little stiff and insensitive by comparison. Gibson is good in the 1st and 3rd movements, less convincing in the others. Barbirolli is always mentioned as THE one to get, but this is wrong. Compared directly with the above recommendations, he is surprisingly stiff and unromantic (Previn is the more Barbirollian option!). In fact, I find Barbirolli generally disappointing in this composer (though I may get lynched for saying so).

Symphony No. 6

I think this is one of Vaughan Williams’ lesser symphonies. It has a strong concept, but the music itself doesn’t much hold my attention. The famous quiet last movement bores me. Boult is best overall, fierce, coherent and convinced, but his finale was mastered a little strangely (it gradually gets louder and hissier, or perhaps that’s my stereo). Haitink provides some interest by playing this turbulent score very urbanely, giving the impression of turmoil beneath still waters. Handley is generally good but doesn’t convince me of this work’s worth. Previn is exciting until the crude finale (Berglund also falls down here). Andrew Davis is often wheeled out as the recording to own, but I think this may only be due to its interesting sound, unusually dark and distant – the performance itself is not especially committed or insightful.

Symphony No. 7 “Sinfonia Antartica”

A fine work sadly lumbered with a silly title, a wind machine, and some illustrative quotations in the score which add little to the musical experience. Previn is slowest, grandest, scariest, but you’ll need to program the spoken parts out of it. Bakels‘ “objectivity” works here – he is scary and heavy but swift. Between them, Previn and Bakels most successfully present this music independent of its filmscore origins, instead an evocation of the fragile human psyche dwarfed by a vast and dangerous universe.
Boult is very heroic and “stiff upper lip”, which is a rather limited view on this work. Thomson is a bit generalised, has some uncomfortable phrasing in the first movement, and a terribly underwhelming organ in the “ice-fall” section. Haitink is well played and recorded but rather anonymous, with a fake-sounding wind machine. Handley falls flat, with no atmosphere or emotion, just a spectacle for orchestra (and the recording isn’t spectacular enough to get away with that). Barbirolli’s is good for a first performance, but now sounds like a recording of mere soundtrack music.

Symphony No. 8

The least programmatic of the symphonies, and also the most fun. I like Thomson best because his broader tempos enable him to show greater detail – the impression is of ‘more music’ rather than ‘slower music’. It’s an excellent, committed performance too. Previn, Handley and Bakels are good, but Previn is probably the most joyous, and does best with the ending, being the most emphatic. Boult is roughly played, unsubtle and ultimately dull, even duller than the blithely efficient Haitink.

Symphony No. 9

On the advice of Boult, Vaughan Williams planned to revise the finale, but died before he could do so. This is a shame, as it is obvious what needed fixing: the structure as it is seems diffuse, and the apotheosis arrives too suddenly, without adequate preparation. The structural problem can partly be overcome by taking the movement allegretto (as opposed to the designated andante), but then the apotheosis is even more of a problem, as it obviously requires a slower tempo (I would suggest some surging rubato to accommodate the transition).
Handley is fairly successful in the finale, and his overall performance has something of a flowing narrative feel (appropriate in as much as the symphony was inspired by Thomas Hardy’s Wessex novels), although, as usual, he rushes his fences too much for my taste. Boult, on his second time around, does pretty well in the finale, but the ending is hampered by unsubtle recording, and the overall playing and recording quality is second rate; his scherzo lacks energy too. Previn is very atmospheric and characterful, and most gleefully wicked in the 3rd movement; his finale is perhaps more disconnected, but his slower tempo makes it sound more momentous (a good thing).

A note on the programming of discs

The effective arrangement of the Vaughan Williams symphonies on CD seems to be an almost insurmountable problem for record companies, who are insensitive to the negative effects ill-considered juxtaposition can have.

For instance, if you program the 7th followed by the 8th, the epic Antartica will swamp the smaller, more subtle 8th (see Previn, Bakels). Programming any music at all after the long hushed ending of the 6th is tactless (all but Boult offend). Following the meditative 3rd with the caustic, rage-filled 4th is also a miscalculation (Previn, Handley). The Boult set is best in this respect, tastefully pairing 3 with 5, 4 with 6, and 8 with 9.

Other works

Along side the symphonies, Boult presents a very powerful performance of the Tallis Fantasia. Sadly the other non-symphonic works are less impressive: his Wasps overture pales besides the account in Previn’s set. The Wasps and Job suites are lumpy and dull; Handley’s performances (not in the complete set) are a better option. The concerto for two pianos is duller than the original version for one (at least under Boult’s direction). Boult’s Norfolk Rhapsody and In Fen Country are also misses, even compared with the complacent Haitink.

Haitink includes some songs sung rather gratingly by Bostridge.

Previn includes a decent account of the violin solo, but the soloist is too forward and rough-sounding. The tuba concerto soloist is a bit breathy and parpy (though infinitely better than the original under Barbirolli – Barenboim is probably your best option in this admittedly short and slight work).

For the non-symphonic (and non-balletic, non-concerto) orchestral works, your best option is a two-disc set conducted by Marriner (the Australian Eloquence set is more complete than the Decca). All the performances are really top-notch (a nice change for Marriner) – warmly shaped and beautifully recorded. This collection comes with the best recording of the rarely-heard Romance for Harmonica. You might want to supplement with a more emotive performance of the much-recorded Tallis Fantasia.


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