Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Vaughan Williams, EMI, and Sir Adrian Boult




EMI (50999 0) 87484 2 (5-disc box set) (2012)
Vaughan Williams: The Nine Symphonies
Sir Adrian Boult/New Philharmonia/London Philharmonic et al. 

With the possible exceptions of Sir John Barbirolli's justly lauded 1962 reading of the Symphony #5, or the late Sir Richard Hickox' riveting rendition of the 4th on Chandos, there are probably no more authentic or authoritative stereo performances of Vaughan Williams' symphonies than those recorded by Sir Adrian Boult for EMI with the London Philharmonic and New Philharmonia orchestras between 1967 and 1971. (Boult’s mono recordings, made for Decca between 1952 and 1958 under the supervision of the composer, are an extraordinary testament and well worth the serious collector’s attention.)

It's a great shame that neither Barbirolli nor Hickox got around to recording a complete RVW symphonic cycle during their busy lifetimes, in which case this present set might have had some genuine competition. The well-known and often-re-issued cycles by Vernon Handley (EMI), Bryden Thomson (Chandos), Bernard Haitink (EMI), Sir Andrew Davis (TelDec), Andre Previn, and Leonard Slatkin (both for RCA) are all competent, offering some interesting insights into the music, but none of them rise to the rarefied heights so decisively commanded by Boult, especially when one considers the improved sound in this new transfer. I was particularly disappointed by the superannuated sonics on EMI's recent 30-disc Vaughan Williams Collector's Edition, featuring—somewhat mystifyingly—yet another issue of the Handley cycle, a disappointment which greatly influenced my decision to purchase this packaging of the Boult performances. In retrospect, I'm glad I did.

Boult's cycle has never been out of circulation since it first appeared. I remember collecting some of these performances on Angel (EMI-USA) LPs back in the mid-70s; the sound being fairly muffled and poorly defined, due in part to the sub-par pressings so common back then. I found better pressings and sound on His Master's Voice (EMI-UK) import LPs a decade later, and was able to more fully appreciate the scope and power of these interpretations. First in 1986, and again in 1991, EMI re-issued the cycle on a series of separate CDs as well as no fewer than three subsequent complete box sets (2000, 2012 and 2013—no doubt Warner Classics will continue this tradition as well). As originally issued, those re-masterings fell somewhat short of the mark in my opinion, failing to take full advantage of the broader dynamic levels afforded by the new digital technology. In this regard, the first CD issues in no way superseded the 80s-vintage HMV LPs.

While this new set from 2012 relies on the same re-masterings from the late 80s, the quality of the transfers is greatly improved. The sound that was excellent in 1986 is now nothing short of magnificent; wide-open, richly detailed, full and clear with nothing coming between the music and the listener. And this truly is great music, from a great interpreter who was as close to the musical mind of the composer as anyone before or since. Boult's reading of the choral Sea Symphony (#1) is taut, stirring and vividly paced; his London Symphony (#2) is a revelation of detail, and probably the finest interpretation of that most famous example of English impressionism ever to be recorded in stereo (though Barbirolli’s 1957 recording is exceptional, and his 1940 mono recording remains the ultimate benchmark for this work); the gentle Pastorale (#3), the noble, stirring 5th; the dark, acerbic 4th and 6th; the wry and rollicking 8th, the autumnal 9th, and the extended cinematic tone-poem of the Sinfonia Antarctica (#7) are all brought to glorious life on these recordings; sheer, unalloyed pleasure. (This set includes only the symphonies with no additional filler material.)

Recommended without reservation.

 

DISCOGRAPHY



LPs: 
 

1a.
EMI (HMV) SLS-780 (2-LP set) (1968)
EMI (Angel) SB-3739 (2-LP set)
Vaughan Williams: A Sea Symphony (Symphony #1)
The Wasps
Boult/London Philharmonic et al.

1b.
EMI (HMV (Greensleeve)) ESD 7104 (1981 re-issue)
Vaughan Williams: A Sea Symphony (Symphony #1)
Boult/ London Philharmonic et al.

2a.
EMI (HMV) ASD 2740 (1971)
EMI (Angel) S-36838
Vaughan Williams: A London Symphony (Symphony #2)
Boult/London Philharmonic et al.

2b.
EMI (HMV) ED 29 0331 1 (1982 re-issue)
Vaughan Williams: A London Symphony (Symphony #2)
Boult/London Philharmonic

3a.
EMI (HMV) ASD 2393 (1968)
EMI (Angel) S-36532
Vaughan Williams: Symphony #3
In the Fen Country
Boult/Armstrong/New Philharmoni

3b.
EMI (HMV) ASD 2538 (1970)
Vaughan Williams: Symphony #3
Symphony #5
Boult/Armstrong/New Philharmonia (#3)/London Philharmonic (#5)

4a.
EMI (HMV) ASD 2375 (1968)
EMI (Angel) S-36537 (1971)
Vaughan Williams: Symphony #4
Norfolk Rhapsody #1
Boult/New Philharmonia

4b.
EMI (HMV) ED 29 0417 (1985 re-issue)
Vaughan Williams: Symphony #4
Norfolk Rhapsody #1
Boult/New Philharmonia 

5a.
EMI (HMV) ASD 2393 (1968)
EMI (Angel) S-36696
Vaughan Williams: Symphony #5
Boult/London Philharmonic

5b.
EMI (HMV) ASD 2538 (1970)
Vaughan Williams: Symphony #5
Serenade to Music
Boult/London Philharmonic et al.

6a.
EMI (HMV) ASD 2329 (1967)
EMI (Angel) S-36469
Vaughan Williams: Symphony #6
The Lark Ascending
Boult/New Philharmonia et al.

7a.
EMI (HMV) ASD 2631 (1970)
EMI (Angel) S-36763
Vaughan Williams: Sinfonia Antarctica (Symphony #7)
Boult/Burrows/London Philharmonic

8a.
EMI (HMV) ASD 2469 (1969)
EMI (Angel) S-36625
Vaughan Williams: Symphony #8
Piano Concerto
Boult/London Philharmonic 

9a.
EMI (HMV) ASD 2375 (1968)
EMI (Angel) S-36742
Vaughan Williams: Symphony #9
Fantasia on the Old 104th
Boult/London Philharmonic 




CDs:

10. (q.v. 1.)
EMI 64016 (1991)
Vaughan Williams: A Sea Symphony (Symphony #1)
Boult/Armstrong/Carol-Case/London Philharmonic 

11. (q.v. 2.)
EMI 47213 (1986)
EMI 64017 (1991)
Vaughan Williams: A London Symphony (Symphony #2)
Boult/London Philharmonic 

12. (q.v. 3., 5.)
EMI 47214 (1986)
EMI 64018 (1991)
Vaughan Williams: Symphony #3 ‘Pastorale’
Symphony #5
Boult/Armstrong/New Philharmonia (#3)/London Philharmonic (#5) 

13. (q.v. 4., 6.)
EMI 47215 (1986)
EMI 64019 (1991)
Vaughan Williams: Symphony #4
Symphony #6
Boult/New Philharmonia 

14. (q.v. 7.)
EMI 47216 (1989)
EMI 64020 (1991)
Vaughan Williams: Sinfonia Antarctica (Symphony #7)
Boult/Burrows/London Philharmonic 

15. (q.v. 8., 9.)
EMI 47217 (1986)
EMI 64021 (1991)
Vaughan Williams: Symphony #8
Symphony #9
Boult/London Philharmonic 

16.
EMI 73924 (8-disc box set) (2000)
Vaughan Williams: Symphonies & Other Orchestral Works
Boult/New Philharmonia/London Philharmonic et al.

17.
EMI 35672 (13-disc box set) (2013)
Sir Adrian Boult: Vaughan Williams; The Complete EMI Recordings
Boult/New Philharmonia/London Philharmonic et al. 

18.
Decca 000213202 (5-disc box set) (2004)
British Music Collection: Vaughan Williams
(mono recordings, 1952-1958)
Boult/London Philharmonic et al.

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