Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 5 (SACD review)

Also, Finzi: Concerto for Clarinet and Strings. Michael Collins (clarinet and conductor), Philharmonia Orchestra. BIS-2367 SACD.

By Karl W. Nehring

I strongly suspect I am not alone when I say that Ralph Vaughan Williams ((1872-1958) is one of my favorite composers and that his Symphony No. 5 (1938-43) is not merely one of my favorites among his compositions, it is one of my favorite compositions, period. Somewhere around 40 years ago, I was even fortunate enough to attend a live performance of the work by the Ohio State University student orchestra. I currently own three boxed CD sets of RVW’s symphonies (Haitink, Previn, and Slatkin) plus several individual  CDs of Symphony No. 5 (Previn – on both RCA and Telarc, Boult, Slatkin, Spano, and Hickox). This new BIS release conducted by noted British clarinet virtuoso Michael Collins has nothing to be ashamed of in this heady company. It is definitely a keeper – and for several reasons.

The opening Preludio is a haunting movement, one that just seems to float along with majestic motion, like a river flowing along in a beautiful natural setting, or clouds moving through the sky on a gorgeous summer day. Although the overall mood is pastoral, there are moments when the listener can sense an underlying tension. Collins conducts this music with a subtle flexibility of pace and tempo that enhances the shifts in mood without overtly highlighting them. He moves briskly through the next movement, Scherzo, which maintains a pastoral sound but with a restlessness that seems to represent an unsettled or troubled mind seeking some form of resolution, or at least consolation.

The third movement, Romanza, incorporates musical ideas from RVW’s setting of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. (I actually attended a performance as an undergraduate back in 1969, but remember virtually nothing about it. And no, I was not high – contrary to the 60s stereotypes – I just really do not remember anything about the music.) After the nervous energy of the Scherzo, the calm but emotionally, even spiritually resonant music provides succor and inspiration to the soul. There are passages of great delicacy as well as moments of measured intensity that are played with expressive power under Collins’s baton. This is music of great power, but it is restrained power, purposeful power. It clearly shows the genius of Ralph Vaughan Williams, a great composer by any measure.

The final movement, Passacaglia, moves along with measured purpose, the music no longer floating along as in the first movement, but with a sense of coming to the end of a memorable journey. Collins again adapts a subtly flexible approach to tempo and volume that serves the music well. The two recordings that I generally listen to when the mood strikes me to hear this symphony have been the two Telarcs, Previn and Spanos. I believe that duo is now a trio.

The other work on this SACD release (I listened to the stereo SACD layer; there are also SACD surround and CD layers) is the Concerto for Clarinet and Strings by Gerald Finzi (1901-1956), who was a friend and admirer of RVW. Finzi is most well-known for his vocal works, but he also wrote some beautiful instrumental music.

Michael Collins
The opening measures of the Concerto feature dramatic decorations by the strings, which are then joined by much more lyrical lines from Collins’s clarinet. As the movement continues, the overall sensation is peaceful and pastoral, gentle and beautiful. Around the 7-minute mark, Collins delights with a solo cadenza that is startling in its emotional impact. The second movement sustains that pastoral mood, opening quietly in the high strings and with introspective, even reverential playing from Collins on the clarinet. Even more so than the opening movement, this is music very much in the English pastoral tradition. About two-thirds of the way through, the tempo and overall energy level pick up for a spell, but then things calm back down, the movement ending quietly. The final movement is considerably livelier and more energetic. Whereas the first two movements were quiet reflections on nature, taking the listener out into the meadows and fields, this final movement takes the listener for a merry imaginary jaunt down a country road, still in nature, but observing at a more determined pace, perhaps heading home with renewed energy and enthusiasm for life.

The engineering on this release is first-rate, from a team led by veteran soundsmith Mike Hatch. The orchestra sounds balanced, with not a trace of harshness to be heard. In the Concerto, the balance between clarinet and orchestra is just right, without the too-close miking of the soloist that would have exaggerated the perceived sonic size of his instrument. Although the liner notes (in English, German, and French) are not particularly expansive in scope, they do provide a helpful overview of the music. With more than 68 minutes of music, the disc is generously filled. One final item note about the physical package is that the disc is enclosed in a paper sleeve, a miniature version of the sleeves that cover vinyl records. Thank you, BIS, for this extra layer of protection!

As I noted above, this new recording of the RVW Symphony No. 5 is a very worthy addition to a crowded field. In addition to the fine performance and sound, and added attraction of this release is the delightful Finzi Clarinet Concerto. Indeed, most releases of the RVW Symphony No. 5 with another RVW symphony or some of his other works. That is all well and good, as just about anything composed by RVW is well worth hearing, but the music of Finzi is generally not nearly as familiar to many music lovers, meaning that this release might well serve to introduce this composer to folks who will then be inspired to seek out other music that they might otherwise have never heard. You can’t go wrong there, folks. Let your Finzi freak flag fly!


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 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