The picture on the cover here is appropriate: a sunset behind a line of WWI soldiers trudging across the landscape. Vaughan Williams spoke of how, as an ambulance driver in WWI, he would stop in the evening and gaze at the sunset, and the symphony evokes not just English pastoral pastels, but the sadness of war and the intense desire for a haven of peace within (or after) it. This CD received attention in Stereophile magazine, not just for being beautifully recorded, but for evoking the darker wartime ambiance that Vaughan Williams presumably had in mind beyond mere English pastoral beauty. The symphony contains many moods.
Hickox's interpretive choices serve the music well, and his is likely the best among recent digital recordings. It may be that the introspection and mystery of much of Vaughan Williams' music makes it ideal for listening at home, rather than when seated in a concert hall and distracted by bright lighting and other concertgoers. Pastoral nature music does not do well in a concert hall environment.
The only recording I know of that I can say is better than this is Andre Previn's, with the London Symphony. Previn carefully shapes and sculpts this music, which can easily sound amorphous and directionless. We hear more clearly its themes, paragraphs, and larger structures; his long, unhurried lines allow the music to unfold with utmost naturalness, yet the scherzo still has plenty of energy and a sense of suppressed power. Previn's recording, however, dates from the '70s and sounds a little dry today, but on many systems will still sound quite good. I recall that Thomson's was also good, but haven't heard it lately; Boult's is perfunctory, with poor sound; Haitink's is also rather perfunctory.
Reviewers who "don't get" this music, and can't hear the differences between different performances of it, are probably of the type who don't get much music at all unless it includes blaring Mahlerian trumpets and similarly bombastic displays of orchestral might. For those capable of appreciating more subtle moods and effects, Vaughan Williams' Pastoral Symphony has always been, and will always be, a highly popular work.