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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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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 John 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.

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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa