Record Guide: Vaughan Williams’ Symphonies

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Ralph Vaughan Williams is one of the great symphonists of the 20th century. Drawing on British folk music and the old Tudor composers, he created something uniquely evocative and personal in his nine symphonies, which are often very different from each other, some more dramatic, some more lyrical in character.

Bryden Thomson & London Symphony Orchestra

Bryden Thomson’s 1992 cycle on Chandos with the London Symphony Orchestra wins out in the long run. He has a feel for the composer’s idiom and his interpretations are often very powerful, not least in the Fourth and Ninth Symphonies. There is a strong personality throughout the cycle and Chandos’ dynamic sound is also a massive plus for the listening experience.

Bernard Haitink & London Philharmonic Orchestra

Bernard Haitink’s cycle with the London Philharmonic Orchestra on Warner (2004) offers majestic interpretations with great wisdom. Haitink places Vaughan Williams in the great symphonic tradition and these are definitely recordings to live with. The recordings of the First, Third and Fifth are also among the best ever, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra playing with great finesse and power.

Sir Adrian Boult x 2

No one has done more for the music of Vaughan Williams than Sir Adrian Boult, who has also conducted two complete cycles of the symphonies on record. The first in mono on Decca from the 1950s with the London Philharmonic Orchestra would be my first choice, although the second cycle (Warner) is in stereo. Boult’s early series is much more dramatic and personal than the latter, and has a surprisingly good sound. Boult’s interpretations are idiomatic and his love of the music is evident throughout the symphonies. His interpretation of the Second, “A London Symphony”, may be the only one that matches that of John Barbirolli.

 

André Previn & London Symphony Orchestra

André Previn’s series with the London Symphony Orchestra on RCA (1972) was something of a sensation when it came out. Previn brings colour, excitement and drama to the music and offers a more virtuosic and modern interpretations of the symphonies. Some of the recordings in this cycle could also be first choice for a particular symphony. The introspective Third Symphony is interpreted with great beauty by Previn, and the Seventh has rarely been played more dramatically than here.

Vernon Handley & Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

My first recommendation is Vernon Handley’s cycle with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra on Classics for Pleasure (2002). Handley’s interpretations are ideal, with a perfect blend of warmth, beauty and power; no one is more convincing in Vaughan Williams than this conductor. The standard is the highest in all the symphonies, with an extra plus for the interpretations of the Fifth and Sixth, which are among the best ever. The sound is also clear and warm, with the Liverpool Orchestra playing with commitment under Handley’s baton.

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