Too Much Tchaikovsky

Special Effects

It’s holiday season as I write this, and I can’t help feeling grateful for the bread I’ll break and the people with whom I’ll break it.

This year I also feel like thanking Chandos, who’ve done more than their share lately to nourish a new Golden Age of great orchestral recordings. At least two world-class conductors are exclusive Chandos artists: young(ish) Edward Gardner and venerable Sir Andrew Davis. Between them they helm the BBC SO, Bergen Philharmonic, Melbourne SO, et al. for an ever-expanding Chandos symphonic catalog. Although I’m still digesting the last crumbs of the Charles Ives feast that Sir Andrew gave us recently, I’m also eagerly anticipating Gardner’s Bartók Concerto for Orchestra; he’s already shown us what a terrific job he can do with other Bartók.

But today, in this space, let us just praise Ralph Vaughan Williams (“RVW”; 1872–1958), especially his late music, especially his last three symphonies, Seven–Eight–Nine. In 2002 Chandos recorded RVW’s Sixth and Eighth with Richard Hickox and the LSO, a performance easily preferable to Davis’s 1994 Eighth (BBC SO, Teldec; now available in this collection). As for Seven and Nine, Davis’s recent outings with the Bergen PO are unlikely to be bettered for a long time.

What first won me over to Davis’s RVW—and reawakened me to Vaughan Williams himself, if I’m going to be honest—was Symphony No. 7, the Sinfonia Antarctica (Chandos CHSA 5186). You might raise an eyebrow there. Years ago, in the old New Grove, Hugh Ottaway dismissed this work as “arguably neither sufficiently symphonic nor sufficiently programmatic” and thus “the least successful of the mature symphonies,” a label that apparently stuck. Well, nonsense!

No. 7 did originate as music for a film, Scott of the Antarctic (1948). And it does boast some truly cinematic moments. Nowadays you can easily compare the film score with the symphony: just get the new Dutton Epoch SACD of the complete Scott score, then listen to Davis’s reading of the symphony. You’ll hear that RVW came up with wonderful material for the film, then successfully wrestled much of it into the longer-form requirements of a symphony or tone poem. Although really, by 1952, when RVW had completed the new work, who would have argued that such categories still mattered? (Remember that in 1952 l’enfant terrible Pierre Boulez had already begun work on Le Marteau sans maître, a watershed chamber work that would both extend and resist the serial techniques then dominating music’s ultra-modern sphere.)

RVW was no ultra-modernist. Nevertheless his work on the Scott project led him out of a creative crisis. The spiritual desolation he felt after World War II was reflected in the morbid final movement of the Sixth Symphony, an Epilogue played sempre pianissimo that wanders between E-flat major and E minor and drifts off without ever resolving.

This musical standoff “found its physical counterpart,” according to Ottaway, in Scott’s polar wastes, whereas RVW’s

sense of challenge and endurance was re-engaged by the story of Scott’s last expedition. Moreover, the human values represented—heroic endeavor, loyalty, dedication, personal warmth—were a timely corrective to the [Sixth].

Vaughan Williams ultimately achieved a profound synthesis touching nearly everything he wrote in the last ten years of his life. Not since A London Symphony (1913) had RVW dared to incorporate so wide a range of imagery. He discovered new tone colors—including the tuned percussion he jokingly called “‘phones and ‘spiels”—but also found ways to reconcile hope and despair, offering “tragic but resilient humanism” (Ottaway) in his music. Listen:

Within those three minutes of the first movement, you can hear this music’s rich scoring, with contrabassoon, bass clarinet, and low brass adding their peculiar deep notes; also the music’s astonishingly wide dynamic range, captured transparently, effortlessly by engineer and label chief Ralph Couzens; also the enlarged sound palette provided by xylophone, celesta, harp, and wordless female chorus; also (!) a wind machine. Pretty good for an 80-year-old. Pretty good for anyone.

The pictorialism of the Scott music surfaces again and again throughout this symphony, not least in the Scherzo, with its depiction of whales and penguins frolicking seaside:

Davis follows No. 7 with Four Last Songs (1954–58), on poetry by the composer’s wife and muse Ursula, orchestrated in 2013 by Anthony Payne. Baritone Roderick Williams is their subtle, supple interpreter:

Procris is lying at the waterside,
the yellow flowers show spring, the grass is green,
before a gentle wind the thin trees lean
towards the rushes, the rushes to the tide.

She will not see
the green spring turn to summer, summer go
in a long golden dusk towards the snow,
with eyes so lit by love that everything
burned, flowed, grew, blossomed, moved on foot or wing
with the guessed rhythm of eternity. . . .

Finally, we get the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1926–31) in its 1946 arrangement for two pianos and orchestra, the original version having proved so difficult that it was never taken up by a capable soloist. Louis Lortie and Hélène Mercier do the honors here. This music is altogether more robust, rhythmic, and percussive than most of RVW’s output. Like the Sinfonia Antarctica, its Wall of Sound will test the limits of your equipment (apologies to Phil Spector and to the ghost of Vaughan Williams, who won’t appreciate being associated with a murderous felon).

And so to Vaughan Williams’s Ninth, which occupies the other half of Sir Andrew’s Job album, reviewed favorably elsewhere. I put aside my own copy months ago, partly because RVW’s concept—the Book of Job as filtered through William Blake’s Illustrations and further refined as “A Masque for Dancing,” replete with Sarabandes, Minuets, and a Galliard—struck me as irredeemably twee. I have since revisited this recording, partly because of the Ninth, a very fine piece indeed, its flugelhorn and saxophones continuing the composer’s experiments in timbre. The Ninth amounts to a valedictory survey in other ways too: its key is enigmatic E minor, like that of the Sixth; its initial inspiration may have been Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, although little remains of that program besides the Andante’s tolling bell at the end. Other influences abound; no surprises, only evidence that RVW’s powers continued to thrive.

I may also revised my opinion of Job. It contains some lovely passages, like this, “Elihu’s Dance of Youth and Beauty,” which leads into a “Pavane of the Sons of the Morning”:

Recommending these late works is easy. It’s like pointing a friend toward a good tailor or grocer; know that you will be in good hands. Enjoy!