Classical CD Reviews

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 5 in D Major; Symphony No. 8 in D Minor – Hallé Orchestra/ Sir Mark Elder – Hallé

Sir Mark Elder realizes the D Major and D Minor Symphonies of Ralph Vaughan Williams with refined grandeur—played for pomp, breadth, and glory.

Published on August 13, 2013

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 5 in D Major; Symphony No. 8 in D Minor – Hallé Orchestra/ Sir Mark Elder – Hallé CD HLL 7533, 68:21  [Distr. by Allegro] ****:

The year 1937 found composer Ralph Vaughan Williams at a creative impasse, at least until he requested from Gerald Finzi a list of available recordings of the music of Jean Sibelius. We must assume these recordings reinvigorated Vaughan Williams’ creative spirit. Between 1938-1943 Vaughan Williams labored on the Fifth Symphony, dedicated (without permission) to Sibelius, and performed in public on 24 June 1943. In spite of the bitter social milieu of World War II, the composer raises idyllic images of the British countryside and evokes aspects of Elizabethan counterpoint.

Sir Mark Elder (rec. 9 November 2011) renders the D Major Symphony as a bucolic and tranquil meditation, only occasionally interrupted by harmonic tensions and passing dissonances. Both the Serenade to Music (1938) and themes from an opera, The Pilgrim’s Progress, influence the writing, especially the latter in the C Major Romanza movement. The influence of Sibelius remains slight, though both composers open their respective fifth symphonies with a horn-call. The sudden modulation to E Major for Vaughan Williams’ second subject confirms the sense of aspiration in this often grand work, a moment of that “sceptred isle. . .This fortress built by Nature for herself. . . this England” that reposes untainted in a tumultuous world.

The mercurial Scherzo movement utilizes a pentatonic figure that might owe debts to Ravel. The brass move expressively while the woodwinds indulge in croaking sounds. A feeling of angst runs through the Scherzo, the short, irregular themes rife with modal harmonies and ‘antiquated’ moods. The color of the English horn marks the Romanza, which moves upward in a semblance of an Alleluia. This rather valedictory affect Elder brings out with ravishing fondness. Following Brahms, Vaughan Williams turns to the Passacaglia in his final movement to express his sturdy resolution in D Major, now shorn of any ambiguous modality. The horn call that began the work returns, and the stretto treatment soon moves through happy variants that soon recall string, horn, and tympani colors from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe. The work provides Elder and the Hallé Orchestra a marvelously variegated palette, now settled righteously in D Major and ascending at the coda to a triumphant A in the high strings.

The Symphony No. 8 in D Minor (1955) and dedicated to Sir John Barbirolli has the repute of being Vaughan Williams’ shortest and perhaps most ironical of his late works.  Vaughan Williams in his eighties suddenly indulges percussive color in an exotic fashion he had denied himself prior.  Sir Mark Elder (rec. 3 February 2012) performs the piece with a surprising solemnity, the first movement having been labeled “seven variations on search of a theme” by her composer himself. The chorale-tune in A Minor rises in stark contrast to the trumpet and vibraphone effects that precede it. We might speculate that the terse writing in Sibelius’ own Seventh Symphony, permeated by its own manner of variation form, influences this Vaughan Williams symphonic Fantasia as well. The chorale episode, largamente, that forms the seventh variation of the first movement, proves affecting.

The second movement, Scherzo alla Marcia, is pure Hindemith. Scored for woodwinds alone, it trips and squints an air of mockery; one could ascribe its canny angular procession of three themes to Shostakovich just as easily. The Hallé bassoons, flutes and trumpet romp rather jovially into a fugato that casts more irony than erudition. The Trio section presents an anti-pastoral close in spirit to Bartok. The lengthy Cavatina exploits the string choir, especially the cellos with their E Minor tune that assumes a ‘sacred’ aura close to the Passion chorale “O sacred head.” If we hear passing hints of The Lark Ascending and Thomas Tallis, the tonal allusion likely is not accidental. First violin (Lyn Fletcher) and principal cello of the Hallé Orchestra earn high marks. The last movement, Toccata, offers high virtuosity from both composer and performers. Every clangorous – dare I suggest ‘heroic’ – device Vaughan Williams has at his disposal – celesta, tubular bells, xylophone, glockenspiel, vibraphone, and three tuned gongs – combine in lavish, fully integrated orchestration to produce a jubilant carillon of sound, Vaughan Williams’ equivalent of The Great Gate of Kiev. The strings and horns contribute their own emphases to the oracular sensibility of the finale, the only coda in Vaughan Williams, excepting the end of the Fourth Symphony, to conclude with an explosion of whim and illumined fancy.

—Gary Lemco




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