The compact collection

Rob Cowan
Friday 03 November 2000 01:00
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Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, two Vaughan Williams symphony cycles vied for supremacy. André Previn's LSO set for RCA married executive alertness with a refinement that suited the Ravelian cadences of the Third and Fifth Symphonies. It was fresh territory enthusiastically explored, whereas Sir Adrian Boult on EMI was making his second, sometimes his third visit to the same climes, wise and thoughtful though not without spontaneity.

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, two Vaughan Williams symphony cycles vied for supremacy. André Previn's LSO set for RCA married executive alertness with a refinement that suited the Ravelian cadences of the Third and Fifth Symphonies. It was fresh territory enthusiastically explored, whereas Sir Adrian Boult on EMI was making his second, sometimes his third visit to the same climes, wise and thoughtful though not without spontaneity.

Take the Fourth Symphony, that raging maelstrom from the 1930s that many mistook for outrage against dictatorships but that more resembles a rugged self-portrait. Boult's last recording is a creased photo of the Old Man scowling, his anger slowed, his outward appearance well weathered. Boult understood VWs rhetoric, and the EMI remake offers considered, plain-speaking reportage, superbly recorded. Both the Fourth and Sixth Symphonies are with the New Philharmonia. The rest feature the LPO.

All nine symphonies have just reappeared in a cheap EMI boxed set, together with Job, The Lark Ascending, the two-piano version of the Piano Concerto, the Serenade to Music and other works. It's a useful, well-presented package which, though not without imperfections, consistently communicates the music's spiritual core.

But if you want to hear how the Sixth Symphony sounded when it first burned bright back in the late 1940s, the Dutton Laboratories provide the opportunity. VW revised the Symphony's scherzo shortly after the premiere, and while the main recording uses the revision, we're given the marginally more fiery original as a sort of encore. Boult again conducts, more swiftly than on either of his later readings; the CD also includes "A Song of Thanksgiving" and Jean Pougnet's eloquent rendition of The Lark Ascending.

Most so-called "classic" recordings are securely grounded in a specific musical idiom, something we've learned to take for granted with Boult in English music. The Hungarian Ivan Fischer has forged parallel life-lines with his compatriot Bartok, though it seems that the Czech Dvorak is virtually as close to his heart. A new Philips CD finds the Budapest Festival Orchestra warming the pages of Dvorak's Legends, 10 armchair reveries that seem to gaze out onto perennially verdant horizons. They're a little like autumnal Slavonic Dances, dreamscape music, wistful, vivacious and unfailingly tuneful. Fischer's string players curl the odd phrase with old-fashioned expressive slides, both reassuring and lovely to hear, and the pacing of each Legend is spot-on.

The fill-ups include a series of Miniatures skilfully refashioned as Terzettos for three violins, a dreamy Notturno that started life as chamber music and a series of Prague Waltzes, said to be written for the 20th anniversary of a fashionable Prague club. It's music where gaiety combines with a seamless stream of melodic invention, and the playing is pure delight.

Vaughan Williams Nine Symphonies, etc LPO, etc/Boult EMI CZS5 739242 (eight discs); Vaughan Williams No 6, A Song of Thanksgiving, The Lark Ascending Pougnet, etc LSO, LPO/Boult Dutton CDBP 9703 Dvorak Legends, Prague Waltzes, Notturno, Miniatures Budapest Festival Orchestra/Fischer Philips 464 647-2

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