VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 5 in D Major – BBC Symphony Orchestra/ Martyn Brabbins – Hyperion

by | Nov 23, 2020 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 5 in D Major; Scenes adapted from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress – Emily Portman, folk voice/ Georgina Wheatley, soprano/ Kitty Whately, mezzo-soprano/ Marcus Farnsworth, baritone/ BBC Symphony Chorus & BBC Singers Quartet/ BBC Symphony Orchestra/ Martyn Brabbins – Hyperion CDA68325 (66:59) (10/30/20) [Distr. by PIAS] *****:  

Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony (1938-1943) means to pay direct homage to Jean Sibelius, particularly to the stylistically radical Sibelius Symphony No. 4.  After the cruel throes of his own Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Vaughan Williams seems to have sought consolation of a kind, opening his Preludio with a pedal on C followed by horns and cantabile strings. Moving to a muted E-flat, the music proceeds, Allegro, in which Vaughan Williams utilizes pentatonic motives and modal harmony. We detect a tritone motif in the C-D-F# that no less informs the Sibelius work. Brabbins allots this music a broad calm, leading to a central climax that Brabbins adjusts to his own taste, given the composer’s lack of explicit instruction. The rich sonority of this movement proves luxurious, courtesy of Producer Andrew Keener and Engineer Simon Eadon.

In exact imitation of Sibelius, Vaughan Williams places the Scherzo as movement two, whose metric shifts – 3/4, 2/4, 3/2 – exploit hemiola procedure to insure a mercurial and phantasmagorical quality to the music. Muted strings, low bassoon, flute, English horn, and thumping bass contribute to the exotic sound, abetted by pentatonic syntax. The effect of a swirling misterioso rules in the Babbins reading. The Scherzo achieves some intensity, only to subside via color woodwinds and strings that have once more applied their mutes. 

Portrait, Ralph Vaughan WIlliams

Vaughan Williams, by E. O. Hoppé

Vaughan Williams inscribes a direct quote from The Pilgrim’s Progress for his Romanza: “Upon that place there stood a cross and a little below a sepulcher. . .He hath given me rest by his sorrow and life by his death.” Horns, strings, and English horn combine to create a rapturous and shimmering intensity. Is this movement the one, open concession to the fact of WW II? The music remains essentially that of the Scherzo, but its tenor has transformed. The sense of the cathedral and spiritual sanctuary now runs deep. The solo voice of leader Cellerina Park graces the violin part as we near the coda. 

A theme of seven measures sets the course of the Passacaglia, the last movement. Brabbins imbues a spirited freedom into the progress of the tune, eliciting a fine sonority into the stretti, then thinning the texture in counterpoint. A lone clarinet opens a commentary on the music as a whole, a broad epilogue of sorts that casts the mood of the finale into the calm realms of movement one, an atmosphere of dignified serenity.

The project of a major opera (or “Morality”) based on Paul Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (completed 1951) long gestated in Vaughan Williams. He began in 1906, and already aspects of his later (1910) Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis and the 1940 Job – A Masque for Dancing make anticipatory arrivals. Emily Portman intones, with excellent diction, the “Flower girl’s song,” who laments her love that will finally endure in the form of an oak tree. We hear direct quotes from the Symphony No. 5.  The chorus “The arming of Christian” has a Handelian flavor. Kitty Whately sings “The Angel’s Song,” the redemptive words adopted from Psalm 91.  Immediately, the a cappella BBC Singers Quartet takes up “Down among the dead men,” a celebration women, wine, and song.  Baritone Marcus Farnsworth worthily delivers the “Shepherd’s Song,” a somewhat free (and iambic) translation of Psalm 23. The entry into the Celestial City marks the climactic, rapturous point of this 1906 score, a fascinating pastiche of a ”work in perpetual progress.”  Here, Georgina Wheatley, soprano, joins the chorus for the universal invitation “to the marriage supper of the Lamb,” a moment as indebted to Handel and Bach as it is to the composer’s own ethos.

The extensive liner notes by Robert Matthew Walker are a model of minute and esoteric wisdom.

—Gary Lemco 

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