Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 3 (CD review)
When English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) completed his third symphony in 1922, he called it the "Pastoral Symphony," numbering it some years later. The name conjures up visions of green English countrysides, perhaps rolling hills and sweet zephyrs blowing through the trees, a veritable wind in the willows. However, that wasn't the composer's intention. He planned the symphony in 1916 while serving in Northern France during World War I. He intended the music as an elegy for the fallen soldiers of a senseless war and as a meditation on peace.
Of the many recordings made over the years of this essentially enigmatic piece of music, my favorites have long been those of Sir Adrian Boult (EMI) and the one we have here from Andre Previn (RCA), now remastered by HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers). Previn and the LSO bring out all the beauty and restrained power of the work in a performance of grace and polish. It helps, too, that the remastering makes it sound better than ever.
The symphony's first movement is wonderfully bucolic, Previn rendering those French fields with the utmost serenity and distinction. The music tends to ripple along rather like the work of several other English pastoral composers--Arnold Bax or Frederick Delius, for instance. Vaughan Williams remarked that he did not mean for the movement (or the symphony) to be programmatic, yet one cannot help picturing wooded hillsides and flowing streams in this segment. It may not be the most-exciting music in the world, but it is wonderfully relaxing.
Although the second, "slow" movement is hardly much slower than the movement that precedes it, it does maintain a more low-key mood, especially the way Previn coaxes the notes out. The trumpet cadenza, another reflection of the War and its devastation, never sounded more persuasive. Following that, we get what passes for a scherzo, which typically ought to be a relatively short, fast, light, often playful movement, but which here the composer makes rather dark, Previn taking him at his word. It is marginally the quickest and most dynamic music in the symphony and has a surging onward pulse, even if by the time it's over the tone has returned to that of the symphony's opening moments.
The final movement, marked Lento (slow), is the most creative and atmospheric section of the piece, with Previn underplaying it just enough to make it, with its wordless soprano melody (sung here by Heather Harper), hauntingly fascinating. This is not a big symphony in the conventional sense but music for quiet contemplation. As such, the "Pastoral Symphony" has never been among Vaughan Williams's most popular works (it may just put some listeners to sleep), but it is one of his loveliest and most thoughtful.
Accompanying the symphony we find the Tuba Concerto in F minor from 1954. It is short and sweet, or as sweet as a tuba can sound, and Previn ensures that the three movements bounce (or galumph) along in good spirits. The music stands in contrast to the nature of the "Pastoral Symphony" that precedes it and, therefore, makes an attractive companion. Surprisingly, it is not at all as ungainly as one might expect, with tuba player John Fletcher making it appear quite fleet and graceful.
RCA recorded the performances in 1972, and HDTT remastered them from an RCA vinyl LP (LSC-3281) in 2011. The sound is remarkably smooth and placid, like the music itself, flowing gently forward, yet with plenty of delicate detail and definition. This is not superspectacular, blockbuster sound; it is warm, natural, realistic sound, an orchestra in front of us in all its breadth and depth, if somewhat subdued. While there is some minor background noise on occasion, perhaps the result of a little judicious noise reduction, I don't know, it is slight. The orchestral imaging is, above all, what a listener will probably notice and remember most about the recording.
For information on HDTT discs and downloads, you can check out their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/storefront.php.
William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer
Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.
The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.