When Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Sixth Symphony was first-performed (in London, April 1948) it must have come as a profound shock. The composer was seventy-five years old, and the completely original structure of the work – to say nothing of its deeply disturbing character – was so unlike almost everything the composer had previously written. It still poses problems, not least for those conductors who choose to essay it (and those orchestras asked to play it), for the work’s innovation is not something that readily reveals itself, even after the most careful and meticulous study.
Many collectors will be drawn to the three recordings Sir Adrian Boult made of the work, for he conducted that first performance, and was greatly admired for his interpretations of Vaughan Williams’s music (he gave the premieres of three of the composer’s nine Symphonies, as well as of several other works), but it seems that Boult himself was never quite settled in his view of the Sixth, despite the presence of the composer at the first two of those recordings. The differences in timings of Boult’s recordings are in many ways remarkable; his second (Decca) recording is considerably slower than his first, and of his third.
I mention this not to criticise Boult, but to indicate some of the interpretative problems the work causes; ultimately, it is fundamentally a question of coherence of tempos, making sure that as the movements follow one another, they do so in a continuous, and therefore genuinely symphonic, manner – at the same time preserving the inherent changes of illustration and atmosphere across this extraordinarily wide-ranging score – as well as making sense of the overall structure and emotional expression.
For it is the emotion of Vaughan Williams’s Sixth Symphony that immediately strikes the listener: it is too tempting for conductors to play up the dramatic intensity of much of the first movement and Scherzo, but that is by no means the whole story. As a consequence, the work continues to pose problems. Convincing solutions I have heard are by Sir Malcolm Sargent, Osmo Vänskä and via this recording Sir Mark Elder.
On balance I regard Elder’s interpretation on this Hallé release to be the finest and most convincing. It is magnificent in terms of insight and coherence, sweeping away any reservations I might have had regarding the Symphony as a whole, and demonstrating the extraordinary genius of the composer. At first, I thought Elder’s tempo for the first movement was a shade too fast, but was soon disabused as passage after passage fitted perfectly the constant pulse he had chosen, with the result that the symphonic nature of the music grows with every-increasing intensity (but without acceleration) until the final dramatic bars – which then fade to usher in the remarkable slow movement, Elder more consistently faster than Boult (in any of his versions) yet not so fast as Stokowski (in his premiere recording – by two days! – with the New York Philharmonic for CBS) at which onward tempo Elder relates superbly to what has gone before. As the Scherzo opens, the inevitability of mood-change is complete here; this is music that almost (but not quite) defies analysis at almost any level. Elder’s grip is total, leading to the amazing pianissimo Finale – measured, unhurried (of course, but still fully three minutes faster than Boult II), and remaining full of the inner tension present since the first bar.
In discussing the Sixth first, I am following the layout on the disc, which is as it should be (the Fourth Symphony ends in fiery mood, similar to how the Sixth begins – and the quiet ending of the latter demands a period of contemplation). This account of the Sixth Symphony by Elder and the Hallé is a great achievement. In terms of musical understanding, I have not heard its equal, but if Elder is to be preferred to Boult and others he is up against stronger competition from the composer himself in the Fourth Symphony, also premiered by Boult (in 1935), for no conductor has matched RVW’s own shattering account with the BBC Symphony (October, 1937). There never was a performance of the Fourth like his, before or since, full of incredible fury and concentration – an unanswerable demonstration of what, as the composer said, he meant.
I am sure Elder has heard and studied the composer’s version, for he has the measure of this still-astounding score, and finds rather more genuine lyricism than the composer’s angst in the slow movement. Naturally following the flute’s changed final note from the original F (on RVW’s recording) to E (this solo is wonderfully played by the Hallé’s principal), and thus making a leading-note to the D-minor Scherzo, I somewhat rued the insertion of a break (no matter how brief) before the latter – the changed note arguably implies an attacca – but there is no denying the compulsion and constantly scorching nature of Elder’s reading, inexorably driving forwards in an unstoppable flood of considerable power.
The playing in this hugely difficult score is magnificent throughout; the Hallé here surely the equal of any orchestra in the World. We might expect as much from an ensemble which gave the premieres of two Vaughan Williams Symphonies and made the first recordings of three of them. The sound of this Hallé release is very fine and supremely well-balanced. No matter how many recordings you may have of these works, I urge you to acquire this – it is quite something.