VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Dona Nobis Pacem; Symphony No. 4; The Lark Ascending – Soloists/ Atlanta Sym. Orch. & Chorus/ Robert Spano – ASO Media (2 CDs)

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Dona Nobis Pacem; Symphony No. 4; The Lark Ascending – Soloists/ Atlanta Sym. Orch. & Chorus/ Robert Spano – ASO Media 1005 (2 CDs), 83:17 [Distr. by Naxos] (9/9/14) *****:

It is ironic that only a few days after the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra decided to lock out its musicians in yet another contract dispute—the last was in 2012—the outstanding new double CD of the music of Vaughan Williams makes its appearance. Though the symphony management is more open to the public trust than in the past, it has a history of being rather disconnected and officious, not to say elitist in its artistic enclave. As things stand now, the musicians are trying to get one player added back after taking a whopping cut down to 88 players (from 96), losing 10 weeks of the season now at 42 weeks, and to recoup a $14,000 pay cut over the next five years by asking a fourteen per cent increase. Unusually, Music Director Robert Spano and Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles, both highly effectual conductors and responsible for the orchestra’s great success, have both weighed in on the matter asking that “the board and management to acknowledge the sacrifice the musicians have already made, and to examine other ways and areas to establish sustainability.” No one wants to see a great orchestra go down the tubes, and the ASO is not exactly the highest paid ensemble in the world, but with ticket prices continuing to be quite high and subscriptions down, it’s tough to know where to start looking. However, one also hopes that the 69 members of the administrative team are also willing to take a hit comparable to the 89 musicians. The one fact remains: without players there will be no music. Artistic integrity has to be a joint effort among all concerned. Stay tuned.

If anything reminds us of how fine an ensemble the ASO is, or how fine the recently-formed ASO Media record label is, it is this spectacular new album. Spano is becoming somewhat of a VW specialist these days, and this set now makes for four CDs worth of music that the orchestra has recorded of the Englishman. It was the Huddersfield Choral Society that commissioned the cantata Dona nobis pacem for its 100th anniversary. Though the world was once again prepping for war, of which the composer had had enough during the Great War, the outlook is optimistic, most likely because of the poetry of that eternal optimist, Walt Whitman, whose poetry forms the emotional heart of the piece, taken from his Dirge for Two Veterans plus a couple of other smaller poems and sources. The Latin mass also serves as a unifying thread tying together this beautiful work. Spano and the always first-rate ASO Chorus, not one whit diminished since the death of Robert Shaw so many years ago under the watchful eye of Norman Mackenzie, perform brilliantly, along with the stellar soloists in a reading that easily tops my previous favorite by the late Richard Hickox on EMI.

The Fourth Symphony could be VW’s greatest; certainly all the hallmarks of a superbly formed symphonic work are there in each movement. The piece was sketched over a three year period and received its first performance in 1935, and by all accounts was rapturously received by the public. The critics however, in a strange about-face (perhaps they should have been born about 20 years later) found the piece lacking in beauty and rather ascetic and violent! I guess they didn’t know what was coming later. Unlike Dona nobis pacem, which reflected not the war but a positive and hopeful response to the war, the Fourth is an exercise in purely musical ideas that show the composer at his best, and what he is capable of. He said himself that he didn’t know whether he liked it or not, but it was what he meant. Of course, in the intervening years our definition of “beautiful” in music has expanded exponentially, and the Fourth really presents no difficulties at all in terms of accessibility—many contemporary high school band compositions are more difficult for a lot of listeners—and the work stands as one of the greatest modern symphonic utterances.

Spano is all over this thing—it’s the type of rugged, bold, and challenging piece that he excels at, and this is one of the best performances ever, maybe as good as the composer’s own or the more recent Colin Davis reading on the Boston Symphony Centennial box set. The sound is fantastic—even though not an SACD, the depth and resonance are speaker-shaking, with good balance and wide spectrum.

The Lark Ascending makes for a nice come-down after all this energy and propulsion, Concertmaster David Coucheron providing some delicate and richly-hued sounds that are full of poetry. This set is highly recommended to all!

—Steven Ritter

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