on June 25, 2002
"You got the score right into you and through you into the orchestra."
So wrote Vaughan Williams to the thirty year old conductor Adrian Boult in 1918 after a performance of A London Symphony. Subsequently Boult conducted and championed Vaughan Williams' works constantly. Many times he recorded and premiered them. This slim-line box, containing all the symphonies and many other items, all recorded in stereo and mostly in the warm Kingsway Hall acoustic between 1967 and 1975, ought therefore to be self-recommending.
It must be said that Vaughan Williams as a composer has tended to polarize listeners. Detractors say that he had neither the architectural vision nor the construction skills necessary for a symphonist. They point to the fact that he himself hesitated to name and number many of his works as symphonies, and that one of them is merely a re-cycled film score. They contain, moreover, many awkward and ungainly rhythmic figures that tend to cheapen them. Champions argue that the music is wonderfully evocative of its time, that many beauties are to be found therein, and that at least three of the works deserve to remain in the international repertoire forever.
Internet browsers, wondering which Vaughan Williams purchases to make, need to balance several factors before selecting this box. The octogenarian conductor, Sir Adrian Boult, directs with authority and knowledge, but nevertheless does not always elicit the very best performances (as in No 7) available or the very best performances of his own recorded versions (as in No 2 and No 6). Against this must be balanced the benefits of relatively modern recording and reprocessing, together with the benefits of low cost and compactness.
Perhaps there are no other internet browsers who, like me, heard Vaughan Williams conduct. At an orchestral concert in London in the early 1950s, devoted to his works, he conducted his own Fourth Symphony. As a young audience member I reckoned that he obviously was not the world's best conductor. A tall, big-framed figure, he kept his eye on his own score and beat time with the baton. Nowadays, I am happy to recommend and own this box of his works, while ensuring however that other versions of them are in my collection.
on January 2, 2001
What is a definitive recording? Is such a thing even desirable? If so, these may be the closest we will get to an understanding of how Vaughan Williams intended his symphonies to be performed. These recordings, however, go so much further than simply being an encyclopedic collection. Boult and Vaughan Williams enjoyed a mutually beneficial collegiality and warm friendship. Boult gave the premier performances of many of these works. Most, if not all, of these recordings were made under the attentive supervision of the composer. The wonderful biography of the composer, which was written by his second wife, chronicles many of these events in a most humanly interesting way. On the other hand, Michael Kennedy's monumental book analyzing the complete works of the composer adds some technical details about these recordings, which are of interest to anyone devoted strongly enough to RVW to want to have his complete symphonic output on cd.
All of the recordings are better than very good. The technical work of remastering has been done to perfection. The performances are full blooded, expressive and exciting. Everyone will have his own favorite among these discs, but to this listener the 'Tallis Fantasia' and 'Sinfonia Antarctica' stand out over other recordings of the same works. The "Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis" was originally composed for and performed in a cavernous cathedral space at a Three Choirs Festival. This performance communicates the mysticism of the work in a way in which I have never heard anyone else succeed. Likewise, "The Sinfonia Antarctica" or "Symphony No. 7" is here performed with the poems and excerpts from Scott's journal read by a young Sir John Gielgud before each movement. This does very much to enhance the total effect. Remembering that this was initially film music, later adapted into a symphony, only heightens one's estimation of the composer. Vaughan Williams was a bold and progressive artist, firmly rooted in the great mainstream tradition. As he labeled Holst and himself: they were 'heirs and rebels' of the great tradition. To any serious musician or music lover, this collection is essential.
on January 8, 2001
I agree with Roger Lakins, who first reviewed this set (q.v.) on every point of judgement - these are great performances which you can absolutely trust as true to the spirit of the music. However, they were not made under the personal supervision of RVW, who died in 1958. That was true of Boult's earlier set. made originally for Decca in the 50s, a set of 1-8, not 9, which was not recorded at the time. This older set is available on a cheap British label called Belart, and many critics would rate it even more highly than the EMI set under review here. But no-one should hesitate about this set - it's still first-rate.
on November 28, 2002
For both the serious or casual listener of Vaughan Williams music, I consider these recordings a must! Only a scant few conductors (John Barberolli, Thomas Beecham, and Adrian Boult), could do justice to his compositions. One slight(very slight) flaw is that the second piece of his English Folk Song Suite(My Bonny Boy), is a wee bit quick in tempo. Other than that, this collection is truly outstanding. Let me also state that since this review is being written on Thanksgiving, there isn`t a "Turkey" in the lot! Sorry for the pun.
on December 22, 2000
Of all the sets available, this is the one to get. Each symphony is treated well, particularly the 3rd and 5th, which for me are two of the very greatest symphonies of the 20th century. EMI gathers all of the great recordings of Boult, who was probably the all-around best Vaughn Williams conductor, and issues them in a very nice looking package. (I admit I am a sucker for collections issued or re-issed in small, more easily handled box-sets. EMI leads the way in this respect.)