This is, I believe, the final instalment in Naxos's series comprising all of the Ralph Vaughan Williams symphonies. They have not all been conducted by Paul Daniel, as here; the earlier ones were with Kees Bakels leading the Bournemouth Symphony which has been on all the discs. The entire set is one that can compete with the best, and I'm not excepting the sets and single symphonies conducted by Barbirolli, Boult, Handley, Previn, Haitink, Hickox and Thomson. The Fourth is perhaps RVW's most dissonant and violent symphony. Much has been made of the likelihood that it was inspired by the events of Hitler's Germany, but actually it was written, or mostly written, in 1931-32 before Hitler's accession to power in 1933. What inspired it is a mystery, although there have been other theories, including a probably apocryphal one that RVW wanted to prove, after reading a review of a 'modern' new symphony--something he termed a 'freak festival'--that he could write one like that, too. Whatever impelled him to write it, it is, for me, one of his strongest works.
The symphony starts with a furious declamation in the orchestra that Daniel and the Bournemouth play with all due ferocity. This sets the tone for passionate expressiveness pervading the entire work. As far as I can hear, Daniel doesn't miss a trick here. His reading is as exciting as Barbirolli's, as neatly molded, particularly in the lyrical passages, as Bryden Thomson's. I simply do not have any criticism of Daniel's conception. Transitions--and there are lots of them, some of them startling--are managed expertly; dynamics are wide but well-judged; brass interjections, so much a part of this symphony, are beautifully done by the Bournemouth players. The Andante is cold enough to make you shiver. The galumphing circus-y atmosphere in the Scherzo is both witty and menacing, mostly the latter. It's not for nothing that Ursula Vaughan Williams commented that this symphony is just like the man himself--'the towering furies of which he was capable, his fire, pride and strength.' Michael Steinberg has commented, rightly, that in this symphony 'the destination is sunlight.' Indeed, the final movement, with its 'epilogo fugato,' is just such an arrival point. (And I love the jaunty echoes of the 'London' Symphony in the finale.) It's not that the fury and aggressiveness have been forgotten, but that they have been conquered and resolved. This is a great symphony--my own favorite of RVW's, if I had to pick--and this is a smashing performance. All hail to Daniel and the Bournemouth for giving us such a marvelous recording.
All that, and I haven't even mentioned the companion pieces recorded here--the early First Norfolk Rhapsody and 'Flos Campi' ('The Flower of the Field'). The Rhapsody is given a loving and tender reading; principal violist Stuart Green and the unnamed principal clarinet deserve praise for their important solos in this pastoral masterpiece, so reminiscent of the style of the Tallis Fantasy. 'Flos Campi,' that peculiar combination of solo viola, wordless chorus and orchestra, six movements with superscriptions from the Song of Solomon, is given a stupendous performance here. Violist Paul Silverthorne is eloquent; his playing causes a catch in the throat with its tonal beauty. I believe RVW made a recording with violist Lionel Tertis, but I've never run across it and cannot compare it with this one, but I shan't go looking for other recordings any time soon. I like this one better than the recording with violist Nobuko Imai with Matthew Best and the English Chamber Orchestra.
A real winner, this one.
on 15 June 2009
This is the best recorded performance of the symphony that I have heard yet. The quality of the playing by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and the Naxos recording bring out nuances and detail not apparent in other recordings. Paul Daniel has an ear for detail but doesn't compromise the urgency of the work. Having said that, it isn't the star performance on the disc - I think Dnaiel is a little too careful picking through the finale and a bit too deliberate in the slowing at the conclusion of th esymphony
The Norfolk Rhapsody is, in a sense, a preparation for othe rlyrical early works culminating in the Lark Ascending.
The performance of Flos Campi - is the star of the disc. I don't think there are any better performances available. The choir, which is wordless, is balanced very well with the solo viola and orchestra. This is an unusually sensuous work for Vaughan Williams. Any Vaughan Williams collection is seriously incomplete without it.
Taken together, the Naxos recordings of the full symphonic cycle with Bakels, Daniel and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra are the equal to most of the competition, strong though that is. This particular recording is an absolute steal. Buy it for Flos Campi alone. Remember; the rest is great too.
on 11 November 2004
After their excellent recording of Vaughan Williams' First
Symphony Paul Daniels and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
come up trumps again, indeed they deliver an even more impressive follow up.
Vaughan Williams Fourth Symphony has always needed careful
handling. After 30 years of popular descriptive works the
composer brought forth this compact (32 minutes) pure music
work in which musical content rather than any external theme is
the subject matter. There may be a progression from darkness to
light, but that is all. The composer himself could be
ambivalent about it. 'I don't know if I like it but it's what I
meant' or when asked what it was about 'It's about F minor'
(it's key). If anything performances can get carried away with
the big gestures to the detriment of the many fine details.
This is a performance in which energy does not degenerate into
flailing and ferocity does not generate into mania. What
impresses about the fast passages is the suppleness of the
playing. It has a fluidity that borders on jazz. This is all to
the good. Also, even in the first, rather violent movement the
listener is never left in any doubt that even at his most
combative Vaughan Williams could still work a great tune into
the score. When the music slows down in the second movement the
beautiful tone of the instrumental playing can be appreciated
all the more. The Scherzo and Finale are filled with dexterous
movement that combines power and a deft lightness. This is
orchestral rapier work.
The overall effect is that this emerges as a thoroughly well
rounded symphony, not so much a great modernist departure but
one in which the composers style is advanced through the
discipline of a tight foursquare symphonic structure. In its
mysticism and its agile orchestration it parallels Holst. As
nature music expressed through an early modern musical language
it parallels Bax, to whom it was dedicated. In its last two
movements the orchestal gymnastics prefigures Matthew
There follows an equally fine performance of the early tone
poem Norfolk Rhapsody Number One which is beautifully
articulated and emerges as perhaps an early trial run for the
better known work The Lark Ascending.
The viola was Vaughan William's own instrument. Tellingly he
never wrote a straight concerto for it. He obviously felt the
instrument had a special role to play, which he gave it in his
Chamber works, a viola and orchestra suite and in this work for
Viola, Orchestra and Chorus. It is a work which conductors and
orchestras should approach with reverence. The subject matter, the sexual mysticism of the Song of Songs and the choir should not sound like some band of star kissed new-agers greeting the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, or indeed like the Swingle singers, as has been allowed to happenon some previous recordings. The approach here forsakes the more breezy, pastoral routes that can be taken through the piece and instead combines intimacy and intensity in a staggeringly effective interpretation which owes its power to the amazing sound of the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus who give what is quite simply the best performance from a choir in a recording of this work.
So, this is top notch Naxos, and indeed a top notch Vaughan
Williams recording. I want to hear this conductor lead this
orchestra in other challenging scores by the composer,
especially the 6th, 7th and 9th symphonies. Naxos has recorded
these works already but there is no doubt that more could be
brought forth from these scores under this baton. The 7th the
Sinfonia Antarctica especially cries out for them to be allowed
to explore its rich soundscapes. They are the ideal forces for