Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 3 (CD review)

Also, Tuba Concerto. Heather Harper, soprano; John Fletcher, tuba; Andre Previn, London Symphony Orchestra. HDTT HDCD244.

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.

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa