Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 6 (CD review)

Also, In the Fen Country; On Wenlock Edge. Ian Bostridge, tenor; Bernard Haitink, London Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI 7243-5-56762-2.

Bernard Haitink's 1999 release of Vaughan Williams's Symphony No. 6 (EMI, now Warner Classics) is a good illustration of why record reviewing can sometimes be frustrating, especially if a reference disc is not handy. On its own, Haitink's interpretation appears competently together, well focused, unified, and, as always, straightforward. As Haitink does in most of his performances, he allows the music to speak for itself, seldom straying from the letter of the score.

Then I put on a favorite old recording of the Sixth, in this case the one by Sir Adrian Boult (also on EMI), recorded exactly thirty years earlier. Why Boult? He premiered the work in 1948, so one supposes he knows a little something about it. Under Boult, the music has more warmth than under Haitink, not just sonically but interpretively, a broader, more loving gait, a sense of real communication between conductor and audience. This is nothing that one can adequately explain in words. It is a feeling one has to experience, and a direct comparison is the easiest way to hear it. Otherwise, one has only a vague notion that "something" is missing somewhere in the Haitink account, as good as it is.

Bernard Haitink
Make no mistake, however. Haitink does offer up a fine performance. It's one that most fans of Vaughan Williams will enjoy. And because of Haitink's usual precision and sharpness of focus, it's a performance that belongs at or near the top of any list of recommendations. The thing is, though, that it's also hard to dismiss Boult, not that most listeners have to make the choice.

Sound has a lot to do with it, too. The newer, digital EMI/Warner Classics is marginally cleaner and clearer than the older, analogue Boult recording, yet at the same time the newer disc appears colder, harder, and less inviting. The older recording is richer and provides more bloom, which may affect one's judgment of the two discs, as it did mine.

How much did the warmer, softer, older recording of Boult's slower-paced performance influence my appreciation of it over the newer one? I'd guess enough. What if the newer reading had had the older sound? Who knows.

In any event, Haitink's companion works on the disc, the tone poem "In the Fen Country" and the song cycle "On Wenlock Edge" (based on poems by A.E. Housman), are more readily up my alley and display a sweetness of spirit and a bent for the color of the Vaughan Williams countryside that I found slightly wanting in the symphony. So, if it's the shorter pieces one is looking for, yes. If it's the symphony, maybe not as much. Stick with either Haitink or Boult, though, and you can't go wrong.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:


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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.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa