By Karl W. Nehring
I was happily surprised recently to find this new CD release containing the generous pairing (more than 83 minutes!) of these two symphonies by one of my favorite composers, Ralph Vaughan Williams. Having auditioned a couple of previous releases in British conductor Andrew Manze's ongoing Vaughan Williams cycle, I was eager to give this new release an audition.
In 1947, Vaughan Williams composed music for the film Scott of the Antarctic, which portrayed the ill-fated South Pole expedition of Royal Navy officer Captain Robert Scott, whose quest to lead the first party to reach the South Pole was beaten buy a month by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen's expedition. On their way back from the Pole in 1912, Scott and all four other members of his party met their frozen deaths. Intrigued by the story and satisfied with the music he had composed for the film, Vaughan Williams set the score aside with the idea of composing a symphony based upon some of the themes. It took him a while to get to it, not starting work on the symphony until 1949, and it took him a while to finish it, finally completing his seventh full symphony in the latter part of 1952. Although the music can stand on its own independent from the story of the ill-fated polar expedition, the title that the composer gave to this work certainly invites the listener to contemplate that frozen continent; moreover, the literary quotations attached to the movements clearly evoke thoughts the tragic story.
My wife and I have long had a musical custom that involves the "Sinfonia Antartica" (yes, that is the correct spelling – the composer titled this symphony in Italian). On that first fall day on Ohio when a big cold front moves in and a blast of frigid air lets us know that winter is on its inevitable way, we play it. On especially cold winter days when the snow is piling up, we often play it. And on especially hot summer days, we often play it.
Of course, we play it at other non-weather-related times, too, simply because it is a grand and stirring composition full of spectacular sounds. The large orchestra is augmented by an organ, a wordless three-woman mini-choir, a wordless soprano (Rowan Pierce), gong, bells, glockenspiel, xylophone, piano, celesta, and last but not least, a wind machine. In addition, literary quotations meant to be spoken aloud (on this recording by Timothy West) have been attached to each of the five movements. Many recordings omit them, some recordings (with the advent of programmable digital media such as the CD) include them bunched together so that you can do with them what you will, but this Onyx recording has put them at the beginning of each movement. I did not think I would like this when I first obtained this disc, but can report that I have enjoyed it, and have preceded my comments below about each movement with its appropriate quotation.
Scherzo:Moderato – "There go the ships, and there is that Leviathan whom thou hast made to take his pastime therein. " (Psalm 104, Verse 26). This lively movement produces a feeling of restless motion as themes are presented by various sections of the orchestra. Brass, percussion, strings, and woodwinds all get an opportunity to add to the energy.
Landscape:Lento — Ye ice falls! Ye that from the mountain's brow/ Adown enormous ravines slope amain—/ Torrents, methinks, that heard a mighty voice,/ And stopped at once amid their maddest plunge!/ Motionless torrents! Silent cataracts!" (from Coleridge, Hymn before Sunrise, in the vale of Chamouni). This central movement of the symphony projects a sense of vastness and danger even at it provides a severe test of the ability of your audio system to play cleanly with power and authority. The movement starts slowly but soon begins to bloom with powerful organ notes providing a bass foundation for the orchestra above. There is a feeling of brooding, of fear, of the sheer immensity of the Arctic landscape.
Intermezzo:Andante sostenuto — "Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,/ Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time." (from Donne, The Sun Rising). This quote is spoken over some lingering notes from the orchestra as the third movement slides directly into the fourth as specified by the composer. Like the second movement, this fourth movement evokes a feeling of restlessness, but at a slower pace. What had been a restlessness born of eagerness in the second movement has been humbled by the immensity of the hostile landscape of the third movement, and we now sense the restlessness of our explorers contemplating defeat and impending doom. Rather than the huge chords of the earlier movements, the orchestration in this movement focuses somewhat more on solo instruments and smaller forces.
Epilogue:Alla marcia, moderato (non troppo allegro) — "I do not regret this journey; we took risks, we knew we took them, things have come out against us, therefore we have no cause for complaint." (from Captain Scott's Last Journal). The final movement begins with a drum roll and brass fanfare. Does this signify a final sense of nobility, or rather a false bravado in the face of defeat and death? As the movement unfolds, we hear the wind machine and chorus, echoes of the symphony's opening theme (dreamlike remembrance of what seemed at the outset to be a noble quest?), and then the soprano, chorus, and wind machine as the symphony and quest fade to the end.
The composer's final symphony, the Ninth (hmmm…) is a wonderful work that seems to be largely overlooked, at least here in the United States. Some years back, for example, I got a phone call out of the blue from some fellow who had obtained my unlisted home phone number (yes, I am old). At some point in the conversation he asked me about Vaughan Williams. Which of RVW's symphonies were my favorites? "Well, let's see," I replied, "I like the Ninth…," but before I could get in another word, he came back with an exasperated-sounding, "the NINTH? Really? What about the Fifth? The NINTH??" Well… Truth be told, the RVW Fifth is my favorite of his nine symphonies. In fact, it is one of my favorite symphonies, period. But his Ninth is pretty darn good, too, and Manze and the RLPO deliver a fine performance.
The first time I ever heard the Ninth was by way of an Everest LP (remember Everest? 35mm tape technology, a real step forward sonically, but then subverted by mediocre pressings, not to mention their often laughable cover art) with Sir Adrian Boult conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra that I purchased back in 1976 or so. This was the very first recording of this work, and Vaughan Williams was to be on hand for this auspicious occasion. Sadly, he passed away just hours before the session. The LP opened with Sir Adrian informing the orchestra of the composer's death.
An interesting feature of the Ninth is the saxophone trio that RVW added to the orchestra, resulting in a sonority that you do not often hear in symphonic music. And no, the effect is not at all jazz-like. Very interesting!
The opening movement reminds me somewhat of the Seventh, with some themes sounding similar in feeling. The second movement, which opens with a flugelhorn solo (this apparently caused some eyebrows to raise when the work was new), brings in an element of mystery, perhaps even a sense of danger, especially near the end. The third movement is more jaunty and bouncy, with the saxophones and percussion section getting a chance to have some fun, the movement ending with a drum roll on the snares. The final movement starts with the strings and then gives all the various parts of the orchestra time in the spotlight, with some especially poignant sounds from the saxophones near the end. The music is complex but flowing, showing Vaughan Williams to be still at the height of his compositional powers even late in his long life.
Overall, this is a truly fine release. Manze's way with these symphonies is right up there with the very best. For the Seventh, my favorite has long been Handley on EMI, and I have enjoyed Bakels on Naxos (spectacular sound, but the conducting seemed to be a bit overly dramatic at times) and Boult on EMI/Angel. In the Ninth, I have enjoyed the Haitink on Warner Classics and the Slatkin on RCA. Both performances – and the attendant sound quality – on this new Manze release on Onyx stand right up there with the very best. I highly recommend it.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: