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.


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

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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 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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For over 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 simple-minded, 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, as of right now it comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio High Current preamplifier, AVA FET Valve 550hc or Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer.
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.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa