This CD usefully and attractively collects some of Vaughan Williams' most serenely beautiful music, including his "other" pastoral symphony, the Symphony No. 5 written in the early years of World War II. As the notes to the recording state, the first hearers of this symphony were possibly perplexed to hear this gentle successor to the angry, militant Symphony No. 4 completed in 1934 as war clouds gathered over Europe. I guess it just goes to prove that interior states and external events don't always square with one another in the creative life. After all, Beethoven and Mozart both created some of their sunniest and most confident works at difficult periods in their lives. And there's no indication that Mozart was in extremis when he wrote some of his most tragically intense compositions, such as the Piano Concerto No. 20 and Symphony No. 40. So how to explain the pastoral radiance of Vaughan Williams' Fifth? No way to fully explain it, perhaps. However, the notes to the recording reveal that Vaughn Williams wrote the symphony while working on his opera The Pilgrim's Progress, so it's not surprising that the two works share the message of comfort in adversity that is at the heart of John Bunyan's allegorical tale.
Actually, when I first heard this symphony, in a critically acclaimed version by Previn back in the 1970s, I really didn't get it. I thought it was a pale sibling of the hard-hitting Fourth; the alternately manic and depressive Sixth; the cinematic Seventh; the brilliantly orchestrated, classically proportioned Eighth. But certainly I get this symphony in Spano's fine performance. He shapes the long melodic lines with tenderness and yet finds the points of tension, in the first and last movements especially, that reflect the troubling times in which the work was written. And Spano addresses the quiet affirmation of the slow movement, the elfin quirkiness of the woodwind-dominated scherzo, with equal success. No small thanks are due the Atlanta Symphony, playing about as beautifully as I've heard them play, and a Telarc recording that is just gorgeous, imparting a sheen to the strings and a golden flare to the brass that you won't hear, sadly, in person at Atlanta's Symphony Hall. How Telarc is able to achieve such fine results in so deficient a hall is beyond me.
The other pieces on the recording, even the substantial Serenade to Music, can be viewed as bonuses. Spano's is an excellent performance of the Serenade, but any recording must be measured against the classic one by Adrian Boult, who performs the original version for sixteen solo voices. The original version is uniquely lovely, and Boult's recording featured the finest singers in England at the time, including Norma Burroughs and Ian Partridge. Still, Spano's forces are all very convincing in his recording, and the superb digital sound is a significant plus. It's also very nice to hear the short hymn tune by Thomas Tallis on which Vaughan Williams' famous Fantasia is based.
But the reason to get this disc is the performance and recording of the symphony. Even if you own another version, this will be an ear-opener for you.