VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 4 in F Minor; Symphony No. 5 in F Major – Toronto Sym. Orch./ Peter Oundjian – TSO Live TSO-0311, 74:10 ****:
These two symphonies represent such a study in contrasts that they rarely show up on the same disc together; Vaughan Williams’ rugged, minor-key Sixth Symphony seems a more obvious pairing for the Fourth. So if you’ve had it with the tried-and-true, this generously-filled disc may be just the ticket, especially if you think the Fourth Symphony can stand up to a bold and brash approach like we have here. In fact, when I first heard this Fourth, I though it might be a little too emphatic, not quite nuanced enough, but the performance has grown on me, and I’ve come to regard it as a very viable approach. For one thing, the fierce delivery of the first movement provides telling contrast to the stunned quiet of the second movement, which has an especially desolate air in the wake of the first.
Audiences used to a kinder, gentler Vaughan Williams were caught off guard by the Fourth Symphony and presumed it was a reaction to the war clouds gathering over Europe in 1934, the year of its debut. But Vaughan Williams wrote of the symphony that it was “not a definite picture of anything external—e.g., the state of Europe, but simply because it occurred to me like this. . .it is what I wanted to do at the time.” Whatever the motivation behind the work, its driving march rhythms, underscored by rasping brass and a prominent role for the side drum, give it a militant air that’s very different from the benign pictorialism of the three symphonies that came before it.
Or the one that followed, premiered in 1943. Even the markings of the Fifth Symphony’s movements seem to turn the clock back to an earlier musical era: 1. Preludio: Moderato; 2. Scherzo: Presto misterioso; 3. Romanza: Lento; 4. Passacaglia: Moderato. In the symphony, Vaughan Williams recycled music for a projected opera based on Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, hence the archaic, quasi-religious feel of some of the music, as well as the inclusion of a musical form (the passacaglia) dating back to John Bunyan’s own century. Yet note-writer Don Anderson also quotes Jerrold Moore, a Vaughan Williams biographer, as saying that the inspiration behind the Fifth Symphony was Ursula Lock, who became the composer’s wife ten years later, though their April-and-December love affair began in 1938 while both were still married to other people. Coincidentally, Ursula, a poet, would collaborate with Vaughan Williams on several projects, including Pilgrim’s Progress, which the composer finally got around to completing in 1949. Thus Vaughan Williams’ predominantly gentle wartime symphony is not so much an escape into an earlier musical style as it is a multilayered spiritual affirmation that must have brought solace as well to its first audiences.
Peter Oundjian’s reading of the Fifth Symphony is a little less individual than that of the Fourth. It’s very well played, nicely paced, the slow movement the affecting centerpiece of the work that it should be. But it’s the gripping performance of the Fourth that’s the main reason to get this disc, I think. Not everything is perfect, however: the fugal trio of the scherzo seems a tad sluggish, with some ragged brass playing at the start. But for the most part, the playing is alert, the orchestra very much in step with Oundjian’s powerhouse interpretation.
TSO Live’s recording is a close-up affair, with plenty of impact and detail but also a reasonable sense of depth and air around the individual instrumental choirs: in short, a good representation of the venue (Roy Thomson Hall), it seems. If this pairing appeals—and I find it very appealing—there’s no reason to hesitate.
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