During his tenure as principal conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra (1978-81) Gennady Rozhdestvensky announced his intention to give a cycle of Vaughan Williams symphonies in Russia. This Melodiya release, taken from live broadcasts of concerts in the Grand Hall of the Leningrad Philharmonic Society between 1988 and 1989, sees the realisation of that intention, and most interesting it is. Here we have a complete cycle of the nine symphonies of a composer considered quintessentially 'English', interpreted by a major Russian conductor and performers for whom the project must have represented a voyage into hitherto uncharted waters.
However, I think it important that potential purchasers of this cycle are aware of exactly what is on offer. This is a collection of live, unedited performances from broadcast material which suffers from a number of drawbacks, not least the microphone placing which, at times, gives undue prominence to certain instruments whilst pushing others into the background. This leads to serious problems of balance which affects the listener's perception of the harmony and gives a false impression of what is in the score. Furthermore, the USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra, although excellent in some areas, does not sound like a world class body and I have a suspicion that the strings were not up to full strength, the violin tone being rather scrawny and undernourished at times (unusual in a Russian orchestra where the standard is normally so high). The performances themselves are marred in places by fluffed notes, poor intonation, misreads, misunderstandings of instructions and examples of untidy ensemble (some verging on the catastrophic). Thus, in terms of playing and recording quality, I do not think that this cycle can be fairly compared with the studio-made ones of Boult, Previn, Handley, Haitink, Sir Andrew Davis, Slatkin or Hickox, from which most (if not all) errors have been removed and the balance carefully adjusted. For this reason I have awarded it only four stars.
However, for those who are not perfectionists and respond to the immediacy of live, 'warts and all' performances (and I am among them), this cycle represents a fascinating, sometimes thrilling and occasionally moving experience and an opportunity to hear this repertoire given a fresh approach, free of stultifying tradition and over-familiarity.
In 'A Sea Symphony', Rozhdestvensky's tempi are fairly broad in the main and his interpretation comparable to that of Sir Adrian Boult, although when he wants to get a move on, things go like the wind! The initial allegro after letter E in the first movement skips along with uncommon vitality and, in the Scherzo, the performers certainly have a stiff breeze in their sails. However, one is aware that the well-drilled choirs and the two fine soloists (soprano Tatiana Smoliakova and baritone Boris Vassiliev) are struggling with the language, making the text unintelligible for much of the way. No matter - there is great commitment in the singing and playing and I find it very satisfying, despite a heart-stopping moment in the first movement when the chorus fades out altogether, leaving timpani and brass to put things back on track.
'A London Symphony' is given a similarly vivid reading, capturing the spirit of the piece, if not always the letter. The playing of the principal trumpet in this, and in the cycle as a whole, deserves special mention, not least because it so secure and the style so 'English' and utterly un-Russian (those who are aware of the hard-edged, vibrato-laden style of Russian brass playing will know what I mean). Indeed, in many places, the performers seems to be following this outstanding player. I am therefore led to surmise that it must have been a British player (John Wilbraham possibly?) who was imported as a guest for these concerts.
'A Pastoral Symphony' is taken at a very leisurely gait for most of the time and tends towards dullness in my view, although the elegiac second movement is crowned by a sublime trumpet solo from our reliable friend. The final movement, however, is taken rather faster than one is used to, but the playing is expressive and framed fore and aft in wordless melismas by the beautiful soprano voice of Elena Doff-Donskaya (a little on the sharp side on her initial entry, but dead in tune at the end of the piece).
Rozhdestvensky appears to view the growling opening of the 4th Symphony as a slowish introduction to the main argument (here his approach resembles that of Bernstein) and his tempo is somewhat slower that of most interpreters (including the composer himself). However, once the march-like subsidiary subject gets underway, the performance is full of energy and the evident enthusiasm of the players for the last two movements is a joy to hear. Rarely has the door been slammed shut so decisively at the very end of the symphony as it is here (although a little untidy ensemble playing lets the side down).
For the 5th Symphony, Rozhdestvensky again opts for a fairly relaxed approach and shapes the whole work beautifully (as he does on his old BBC Radio Classics CD where he had the advantage of the BBC Symphony Orchestra on fine form), though his Russian players' unfamiliarity with the music occasionally leads to looseness in ensemble and the odd misjudgement (the timpani 'fortes' before figure 10 in the second movement are grotesquely overplayed). However, the spiritual ecstasy of the Romanza is captured well and the solo playing is eloquent (although some balance problems in the wind - most likely due to microphone placing - become an issue). The final movement is convincingly paced and the final pages ascend to heaven in appropriate rapture (the audience responding with warmth).
The huge allargando with which Rozhdestvensky begins the tumultuous first movement of Symphony No 6 reminds one of Barbirolli and the Russian's reading is very much in line with those of most of the other major interpreters of this masterwork (although a false entry by an over-eager double bass player in the very first bar causes momentary alarm). Scrappy ensemble playing spoils some of the thrust of the first movement's musical argument and the 'big tune' at figure 15 lacks expansiveness, but the dramatic tension is well maintained in the second movement and the apparent glee with which the Russian players handle the gritty counterpoint of the Scherzo is palpable. The austere atmosphere of the finale with its equivocal ending is well maintained and the silence of the audience during this quietest of movements is impressive (an isolated cough aside), especially since the concert was given on the last day of October 1988.
'Sinfonia Antartica' also gets a dramatic reading, with notable contributions from the estimable Elena Dof-Donskaya and the ladies of the USSR Chamber Choir in their eerie 'Antarctic wind' passages. Some bad intonation in the first movement detracts from a largely satisfactory performance. Rozhdestvensky's marine life in the second movement appears to be racing through the icy waves and the playing becomes scrappy, although the penguins waddle tidily enough. Untidy ensemble and intonation problems bedevil the atmospheric opening of the third movement, though the real casualty is the mighty organ solo which forms the climax of the movement. Although marked 'fff' in the score, it sounds as if the instrument is in another hall and heard through an open window (this may possibly have been due to microphone failure or an engineer neglecting to open a channel). A sprinkling of wrong notes from both organist and orchestra do not help. The gentle Romanza is dispatched in a rather perfunctory manner, though completely devoid of any trace of cloying sentimentality, while the final movement begins urgently and proceeds with a fine dramatic drive. Although some untidiness creeps in along the way, the desolate, wind-swept final pages are well executed.
The 8th Symphony, that showpiece for Barbirolli's Halle Orchestra and a tribute to the conductor, receives a careful performance of its first movement, with the tempi perhaps a little too steady. The fast music of the first variation lacks the customary sparkle and the whole movement sounds somewhat colourless, as if the orchestra was tentatively feeling it's way (which it may well have been). The quirky second movement for wind and brass alone fares considerably better with secure, sprightly playing, while the romantic third movement for strings is given a tender reading. The finale, with its battery of 'phones and spiels' (as the composer put it), is played reasonably well, though Vaughan Williams does not get the three tuned gongs that he clearly specified, but rather three splashy tam-tams which give a very different effect.
The enigmatic 9th Symphony - a late masterpiece that has flummoxed more than one conductor - receives a remarkably assured reading from Rozhdestvensky, comparable with the best interpreters (such as Boult, Handley or Stokowski). The Russian forces sound completely at home in the brooding first movement with its sudden mood swings and the beautiful second subject which begins on the clarinets is eloquently played, although the strings appear somewhat reticent when they enter thereafter (possibly due to poor balance in the control room). Rozhdestvensky's tempi for this movement sound just right and allow the mighty edifice to unfold unhurriedly; only a little imprecision spoils the picture at times. The lonely flugel horn which begins the second movement is played so poetically that surely it must be our 'guest' again (the style being so un-Russian as to make my conjecture more than likely) and the music which follows - the grim march and the gentle, emotive 'Tess of the D'Urbevilles' material - is played with conviction and passion. The malevolent Scherzo with its cavorting saxophones is given a secure, colourful reading, while the bipartite finale is superbly shaped and culminates in a final coda that perhaps lacks just a little grandeur. All in all, this one of the best played and best conducted symphonies of the set.
The booklet notes, translated from the Russian of Boris Mukosei, reads like the work of one who is unfamiliar with the music and its background and has gleaned his information from textbooks and a perusal of the scores (although Graham Muncy of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society is credited with assistance).
This release, despite all it's shortcomings, is a major contribution to the burgeoning Vaughan Williams discography and a valuable addition to the library of anyone interested in this composer and possesses one or more of the studio-made cycles. Moreover, it firmly gives the lie to the assertion that British music of this nature is not exportable. Bolshoe spasibo, Gennady Rozhdestvensky!