VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 2 ("A London Symphony"); The Lark Ascending. Barry Griffiths, violin; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Andre Previn conducting. Telarc CD-80138 (CD) no list price.
WALTON: Symphony No. 1 in B flat minor; Crown Imperial; Orb and Sceptre. Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Andre Previn conducting. Telarc CD-80125 (CD) no list price.When we last left the Vaughan Williams symphonies, Boult's second cycle, for EMI, had just found its way to compact disc, with Previn's on the way from RCA. Now that reissue too is complete, only to come up against the latter's own all-digital remake, with the RPO, of the Second - "A London Symphony" - for Telarc.
The symphony itself still seems to me an excellent introduction to this composer, combining his modern and Elizabethan strains in a remarkably atmospheric way that, despite its obvious references to the London of his day (e.g., the chimes of Big Ben, the bustle of the city at night), manages to conjure up the old and the new in almost equal measure. Which, I have little doubt, was his object.
That said, I must point out that the older Previn recording was always one of the finest things in his Vaughan Williams cycle, capturing the music's youthful energy without neglecting its more somber aspects. In this respect I find it preferable even to Boult's, and certainly the new Haitink (also EMI), commendable enough but, for all its spaciousness and majesty, just a little sober.
By comparison Previn's performance for Telarc is a bit slower overall, still spirited but a tad heavier in spots, something that, interestingly, carries over into the recorded sound. (The bigger pages in particular exhibit plenty of sonic muscle.) The RCA CD, by contrast, is noticeably brighter, but not to excess, and again a bit more direct. Either way his affection for, and understanding of, this music are never in doubt. And, with Barry Griffiths the generally sweet-toned soloist, "The Lark Ascending" makes for an attractive bonus.
Another composer Previn has seemingly always understood is William Walton, and, likewise for Telarc, he has re-recorded another of his early RCA successes, the Walton First Symphony.
Why this music is such a stranger to our concert halls is anybody's guess. From the galloping rhythm that launches and subsequently pervades the opening movement, I find it impossible not to be caught up in its angular currents and eddies. And if the finale occasionally seems at odds with what has gone before, as a capstone is is no less triumphant than the very similar ending to "Belshazzar's Feast." Indeed, it is hard to imagine anyone who likes the latter not responding to the symphony, so full of the nervous energy of youth.
Once again, as compared with the Telarc, Previn's RCA recording (no longer available) had a little more pizazz. And I do wish he wouldn't rein in the tempo at the first-movement climax (not uncommon, but something one does not hear on the Harty, Boult or, most significantly, Walton's own recording of the symphony).
In every other way, though, these are both splendid performances, as attuned to the ironic wit of the second movement and the uneasy calm of the third as they are to the festive brilliance of the finale. To which, on the Telarc CD, the two coronation marches, "Crown Imperial" and the somewhat less exalted "Orb and Sceptre," make invigorating pendants.