2004 Has been a good year for Box Sets of Vaughan Williams Symphonies. Best of the bunch is this one from EMI with Bernard Haitink conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Do not be put off by the lengthy gestation of the project, over 16 years between 1984 and 2000, there is a consistency of interpretation, performance and sound.
Haitink's first recording in the set of the 7th Symphony, the Sinfonia Antarctica is his manifesto. He takes Vaughan Williams out of the cosy world of 20th century British music and the interpretive shadow cast by Adrian Boult and places him in an ongoing tradition of European symphonists. Haitink revels in the richness of the symphony's sound worlds and in the romantic heart which he finds in them all. These are rich, big boned interpretations. Nowhere more so than in this 7th Symphony, from the episodic feast of the first movement onwards, and there is surely no recording with a more appropriate acoustic.
The First in the cycle , 'A Sea Symphony" is startling, as conductor, orchestra and singers burn a new way to the heart of this huge work with a searingly intense first movement.
The Second, A London Symphony has many fine recordings. Here the louder passages are brash, boisterous and thoroughly urban. Vaughan Williams loved city life and would surely have approved.
The Third, A Pastoral Symphony is one of the most striking reinterpretations here, and perhaps the hardest to take for traditionalists. Boult's mystical manipulation of blocks of chords with solo instruments floating above them is replaced with lyrical argument.
The furies at the heart of the Fourth Symphony are set free to great effect, as they are in the Sixth Symphony. Haitink excels in the demonic dance music in both symphonies and the jazz elements in the Sixth are enthusiastically articulated
If the interpretation of the Pastoral Symphony is striking, that of the 8th is a complete transformation, and one that convinces. No longer is this a small symphony, here it is the considerable utterance of a master.
The Fifth symphony is its radiant self, but the questions that also inhabit the score are welcomed, giving this performance light and shade.
The Ninth Symphony, sometimes considered a difficult work sounds like a natural summation of Vaughan Williams musical journey. It is a suitable epitaph, autumnal but radiating vigour.
There are a number of filler works here, like the Symphonies some are radical reinterpretations. I am not convinced by this Variations on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. In The Lark Ascending the programme is forgotten and it becomes a one movement Concerto with a continuous violin line.
Haitink's interpretations are not for everyone. If you want modern a modern equivalent of Boult with good digital sound choose the Vernon Handley Set on Classics For Pleasure. That also has the benefit of a more generous selection of extra works. If you want to hear exciting modern performances in exemplary sound snap up this bargain box.