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, 4, 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 – he has the better orchestra by far, too). 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.


A Sea Symphony (Symphony No. 1)

Originally I excluded this symphony from my survey, as I was put off by its strong and slightly kitschy Victorian flavour. But it’s always nice to discover new pleasures! For the most part, the qualities of the various recordings add up to make them about of equal worth. I’ll only mention the exceptions:

Handley was exceptionally convincing in the first movement. He produced a swashbuckling “Sea Hawk” energy to make me overlook the bathetic qualities of the words (not a big Whitman fan here). Sadly, after this Handley loses a bit of energy until midway through the finale; the end of “On the beach at night” needs more molding, and I believe his scherzo to be the slowest on record. He also has the least satisfactory sound of the selections, being colourless and a bit over-reverberant. Still, definitely worth hearing for any admirer of this work. Thomson I thought would fit with the others into the “pretty good” category – until he came to “O thou transcendent” and rushed past it as though it was nothing much. In all the other recordings, this is a big “goosebumps” moment (no wonder it was the title of the documentary), but not here – this is a big problem of interpretation that rules Thomson out for me. Haitink‘s is good overall and has the most modern sound.

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 (though his finale was mastered a little strangely; it gradually gets louder and hissier – or perhaps that’s my headphones). 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, rather distant and unusually dark – 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).
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). Handley is fairly successful in the finale, using the allegretto solution, 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.

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. Even better is Lloyd-Jones’s Job on Naxos. Somebody give this man his own Vaughan Williams cycle! 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 concerto, 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’s Decca disc is a better option in these admittedly short and slight works. I haven’t heard the collection of concertos conducted by Thomson.

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.

4 Responses to “Vaughan Williams : a survey of recordings of the symphonies”

  1. I’m really surprised you don’t rate the 6 very highly. I find it an incredibly powerful work. The musical material shone through brilliantly from the first listen (apart from the final movement, which is mystifying at first). The chromatic fugal trio-scherzo thingy of the third movement is exciting music. But compared to e.g. the 2nd and 3rd there is perhaps less musical substance, a limited pallet of emotions and cultural references; it’s less of a “symphonic universe”. But the appeal of the 6th, to me, is that he seems to be extrapolating, in an almost demented way, from just a few musical motives, and it has a very clear structure – as you say, the “concept” is “strong”.

  2. eyeresist Says:

    Thanks for commenting. Your thoughts on why I may not have taken to the 6th are interesting. Tastes change – maybe one day I’ll “discover” the work anew (fingers crossed). What recordings do you like of this work?

  3. makropoulos Says:

    Your review is of enormous interest. I feel that Previn may be the great forgotten interpreter of the VW symphonies. As far as I’m aware his recordings – or, at least, the initial cycle – are currently out of print. Most other reviewers I’ve read seem to treat him as an “also ran” but from what I’ve heard his performances were richly dramatic.

    I share Mr Hill’s puzzlement as to your dismissal of the 6th. Perhaps this work isn’t so impressive taken as a musical argument but taken as a concept it is marvellous: three furiously belligerent movements that eventually tear the musical fabric apart leaving the wasted no-man’s land of the finale.

    There are a couple of points of view that may sway you more favourably (or possibly just annoy you!). One is that someone (I think it was a writer called James Day) mentioned that the 6th “cribbed“(VW’s own expression) from Holst’s Planets: the 2nd movement with its monotonous battering rhythm suggests “Mars” and the finale with its eerie disembodied tension (a wonderful paradox) suggests “Neptune”. The other point was made by Wilfred Mellers who felt that, if you see VW’s music as describing a spiritual journey, the whole of the 7th could be seen as an extension of that creepy quiet void of the 6th’s finale. Yes – I know that the 7th was written specifically for the film Scott of the Antarctic but Mellers felt that this was a lucky coincidence i.e. that VW was asked to contribute to a film whose depicted external predicament happened to collide with his own internal one.

    In any case, you’ve made me feel like re-evaluating the Previn performances. I already have two of those old CDs. I’ll have to hunt down the rest!

    • eyeresist Says:

      Makropoulos, my apologies for taking a year to respond.
      I agree that Previn is now unfairly dismissed, due I think to some lacklustre later recordings – collectors who know his 60s and 70s LSO recordings rate them highly. I hope one day we’ll see serious remastering of those recordings – his RVW cycle in vivid modern sound would be great.
      I just listened to the finale of the 6th (Boult/EMI). Taken on its own, I am struck by its relationship to the early pastoral tone poems, and also the bleaker parts of the 9th. What I’d really like to do one day is compare all extant recordings of this movement, to see who brings out this relationship best.
      I think you are right about the Holst connection BTW, certainly in connection to Neptune. I think later listeners don’t realise how great an event Holst’s Planets was for English music (Holst fans now perversely put down the work). I have elsewhere pointed out, to zero response, that Bax directly quotes a phrase from Mars in the slow movement of his first symphony.

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