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11.12.18

A Survey of Vaughan Williams Symphony Cycles



An Index of ionarts Discographies


Continuing my discographies, this is a survey of – hopefully – every extant recorded cycle of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphonies. As opposed to the nine symphonies of Beethoven’s, where the survey (so far only the alphabetical index) covers nearly 200 cycles, there are 'only' about 15 such cycles of Vaughan Williams’ Symphonies out – and that’s counting four projects still ongoing. Still, that isn’t so bad, given the rather limited appeal RVW enjoys outside the Anglo realm of the classical music scene.

I have myself struggled with Vaughan Williams, always wanting to like him more than I end up doing… except for the grand opening of the First Symphony, of course, where the grand “Behold –––– THE SEA” etches itself into the memory of every listener on first exposure. (By and large I find the symphonies of Malcolm Arnold rather more memorable, actually.) Naturally, I have been reluctant to accept blame myself and have instead sought refuge in more, new recordings. By way of thus coping with my RVW-deficiency (eventually sniggling a decent amount of Vaughan Williams appreciation (Tony Palmer’s moving – if slow-moving – film Oh Though Transcendent helped a lot), I’ve gathered many more Vaughan Williams cycles on my shelves than, say, Tchaikovsky, to mention someone presumably more popular with a comparable output (disc-spread wise). Favorites are denoted with the ionarts symbol and links to reviews on ClassicsToday and MusicWeb Intl. are included where available.

I am sitting on the data for several new discographic entries under work. Ring cycles, Mahler-, Nielsen-, Martinů- and Schubert-symphony-cycles, as well as Bartók string quartet-cycles. They just take an awful lot of time to research and then put into html-presentable shape and even then they are rarely complete or mistake free. This one won’t be, either, and as such every one of these posts is also a plea to generously inclined readers with more information and knowledge of the subject than I have to lend a helping hand correcting my mistakes or filling data-lacunae. I am explicitly grateful for any such pointers, hinters, and corrections and apologize for any bloomers. Either in the comment section below or, better still, via Twitter. Unlike some earlier discographies, this one does intend to be comprehensive. So I am especially grateful if sets that I have missed are pointed out to me. With several hundred links in this document, there are, despite my best efforts, bound to be some that are broken or misplaced; I am glad about every correction that comes my way about those, too.

There are currently several cycles underway. Next to be finished, presumably, will be Mark Elder/Hallé Orchestra on their own label, who is only missing symphonies 7 & 9. Also ongoing are Andrew Manze/Royal Liverpool PO/Onyx, and Michael Brabbins/BBC SO/hyperion. I will add them as soon as they are sufficiently near completion. Andrew Davis and his Bergen Philharmonic, meanwhile, have added the missing Seventh and Ninth Symphonies to the incomplete Hickox cycle.

The musical participants, where known, are listed in the following order: Soprano, baritone, chorus for the Sea Symphony. Soprano for the Pastoral Symphony. Soprano, speaker, chorus (only where differing from No.1) for the Sinfonia antartica [sic] (where applicable). Graphic depictions for the ClassicsToday, Surprised-by-Beauty, and ionarts recordings of choice.








Adrian Boult I
(1952 – 1958)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Isobel Baillie, John Cameron, LPChoir, Margaret Ritchie, ditto, John Gielgud

The first recorded Vaughan Williams Cycle, completed in the presence of the composer - except for the recording sessions of the 9th Symphony (for Everest, not Decca, like the rest), seven hours ahead of which he died. The short address given by Boult to the listeners is retained in this set as it was on the Everest re-issue. The set - which contains only the nine symphonies - is in mono, except for the Eighth and Ninth. The Belart set from the late 90s (1995 transfers) contains only the original eight symphonies Decca had recorded - but throws in the Double Fugue for Orchestra.
ClassicsToday review here. MusicWeb review here.


available at Amazon
The Symphonies

Decca
Release: 2002
5CDs

US | UK | DE




available at Amazon
The Symphonies
1-8
Belart
Release: 1999?
5CDs

US | UK | DE



Adrian Boult II
(1968 – 1972)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
+ New Philharmonia Orchestra (3, 4, 6)
Sheila Armstrong, John Carol Case, LPChoir, Margarte Price, Norma Burrowes

As the stereo-age had come to full bloom, EMI and Boult set about to record a new cycle in the new format. I think of this as the quintessential tea-and-crumpets RVW... classic recordings, standard-setting recordings for many years, but a bit stiff. Different boxes include different fillers. Mouse-over the covers for detailed contents.
ClassicsToday review (as part of the complete Boult/RVW set) here and (the 2000 box) here. MusicWeb review here.

available at Amazon
The Symphonies
+ orch. works
EMI
Release: 2000
8CDs

US | UK | DE



available at Amazon
The Symphonies
+ other works
EMI
Release: 2013
13CDs

US | UK | DE



available at Amazon
The Symphonies

Warner
Release: 2011
5CDs

US | UK | DE



André Previn
(1968 – 1972)

London Symphony Orchestra
Heather Harper, John Shirley-Quirk, LSChorus, H.Harper, Ralph Richardson, Ambrosian Singers

Right around the time that Boult was having his second go at RVW's symphonies, RCA and André Previn were putting down a traversal of the nine symphonies (and two of the concertos) with the LSO. Quite a bit of different energy, between the two takes, when compared with another. It is as much a standard by now as either Boult and retains many of its qualities.
ClassicsToday review here. MusicWeb review here.


available at Amazon

The Symphonies
+ other works
RCA
Release: 2016
6CDs

US | UK | DE




available at Amazon

The Symphonies
+ other works
RCA
Release: 2004
6CDs

US | UK | DE



Gennady Rozhdestvensky
(1988 – 1989)

USSR Ministry of Culture State SO
Tatiana Smolyakova, Boris Vasiliev, The Choir of the Leningrad Music Society/The Choir of the Rimsky-Korsakov Music College, Elena Dof-Donskaya, ditto, USSR State Chamber Choir

While the West was taking a break from recording Ralph Vaughan Williams symphonies, Gennady Rozhdestvensky was on one of his subversive missions to present all of these quintessential English symphonies in Moscow. What a season that must have been. It was recorded, too, and appeared out of left field when Melodiya re-issued it around 2014. vive la différence!
MusicWeb review here.

available at Amazon
The Symphonies

Melodiya
Release: 2014
6CDs

US | UK | DE



Bryden Thompson
(1987 – 1990)

London Symphony Orchestra
Yvonne Kenny, Brian Rayner Cook, LSChorus, Kenny, Cahterine Bott

This cycle appears to have snuck softly unto the market, or at least it did not leave much of a mark, despite being the first digital such cycle. It turns out to be an underrated gem. A dissenting voice described some of the virtues of this set quite well: "Only for those who believe Vaughan Williams to be an edgy modernist with a tendency toward the apocalyptic." It was not meant as a compliment, but I find it an apt description of what I find intriguing about Thomson's RVW. Perhaps this set's day in the sun will come again one day, and then hopefully re-issued with the non-symphony RVW of Thomsons which, for the box, had been sliced off. (Those additions had been: Concerto Grosso (w/2), the Oboe Concerto (w/3), the Violin Concerto (w/4), the Lark Ascending (w/5), the Tuba Concerto (w/6), Toward the Unknown Region (w/7), Partita for Double String Orchestra, Greensleeves Fantasia, Two Hymn-Tune Preludes (w/8), and the Piano Concerto (w/9). Further Dona Nobis Pacem and the Five Mystical Songs. Miscellaneous RVW orchestral works, with some overlap, can be found on a separate two-disc set with the Norfolk Rhapsody, In the Fen Country, the Tallis & Greensleeves Fantasias Dives & Lazarus Variants, Lark Ascending.


available at Amazon

The Symphonies

Chandos
Release: 1992
5CDs

US | UK | DE


Leonard Slatkin
(1990 – 1992)

Philharmonia
Benita Valente, Thomas Allen, Philharmonia Chorus, Linda Hohenfeld, ditto.

Leonard Slatkin always had a penchant for things English and in the 90s, while he was a hot rising American music director in St. Louis, he got into the RVW game. Slatkin frequently gets a bad rap for indisctinct recordings, and while some of that has merit, it is also often unjust. Certainly among his earlier recordings, there are a good number of gems and these recordings are absolutely among them.
ClassicsToday review here.



available at Amazon

The Symphonies
+ orch. works
RCA / Sony
Release: 2012
6CDs

US | UK | DE




available at Amazon

The Symphonies
+ orch. works
RCA Red Seal
Release: 1993
6CDs

US | UK | DE


Vernon Handley
(1986 - 1993)

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Joan Rodgers, William Shimell, RLP Choir, Alison Barlow, Alison Hargan

At this point (the late 80s) EMI must have felt like getting back into the RVW-game, to replace the steady-going Boult cycle with something new. Happily they picked the inveterate British musician Vernon Handley for the task. Never one for splash but full of understanding for the music he championed, he put down one of the best cycles of RVW's symphonies, despite not having the best orchestra at hand, nor having been given an ideal sound quality. In my discographic appreciation of Handley, I wrote: "Handley stands out as the most consistent and the most consistently enjoyable. It’s not as “tea & crumpets” (read either as “very British” or “boring”) as the EMI cycle of Handley’s mentor Boult, it is not as full of effects (for better or worse) than Previn, livelier than the very composed Haitink. If I listen to Handley perform Vaughan Williams, I am reminded of Günter Wand conducting Brahms or Bruckner." Well, there's a reason why EMI included this cycle in their catch-nearly-all RVW-Collector's Edition box.
ClassicsToday review here.



available at Amazon

The Symphonies
+ orch. works
CfP
Release: 2002
7CDs

US | UK | DE




available at Amazon

The Symphonies
+ orch. works
EMI
Release: 199?
6CDs

US | UK | DE





available at Amazon
RVW Collector's Ed.
whole kit & caboodle
EMI Eminence
Release: 2008
30CDs

US | UK | DE



Andrew Davis
(1990 – 1996)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Amanda Roocroft, Thomas Hampson, BBC Symphony Chorus, Patricia Rozario

At this point a cry (from Teldec) went through the town of London as to which orchestra hadn't yet recorded a RVW-Symphony-Cycle and the BBC Symphony Orchestra's hands went up fastest. With Andrew Davis leading them, this cycle was warmly - perhaps lukewarmly - received. Most cycles are pretty inexpensive these days, but for value, this one might just stand out. It's also said to contain one of the best Sixth (which is also available separately).
ClassicsToday review here. MusicWeb review here.

available at Amazon
The Symphonies
+ orch. works
Warner
Release: 2004/8
6 individ. CDs

US | UK | DE



available at Amazon
The Symphonies
+ orch. works
Teldec
Release: 1992
6CDs

US | UK | DE



Bernard Haitink
(1984 - 2000)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Felicity Lott, Jonathan Summers, LPChoir, Amanda Roocroft, Sheila Armstrong

Bernard Haitink's cycle is easily the most controversial RVW Symphony Cycle - along with Rozhdestvensky perhaps the only controversial such cycle. Apparently a love-it-or-hate-it affair, it gets dinged for being unidiomatic, slow, ponderous, and wildly missing the point... but also hailed for lyrical, revelatory, and plain gorgeous, being ascribed a sort of alien beauty. On ClassicsToday, it's a CD from Hell. Elsewhere, it's a first choice.
ClassicsToday review here. MusicWeb review here.

available at Amazon
The Symphonies
+ orch. works
EMI
Release: 2004
7CDs

US | UK | DE



available at Amazon
The Symphonies
+ orch. works
Warner
Release: 2013
7CDs

US | UK | DE



Kees Bakels & Paul Daniels
(1992 – 2003)

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Joan Rogers, Christopher Maltman, Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, Patricia Rozario

Naxos got into the fray with this cycle with the Bouremouth Symphony Orchestra, led by Kees Bakels (in Sys. 2 & 3 and 5-9) and Paul Daniels (in 1 & 4, Flos Campi and the Rhapsody). It's easy to underrate this perfectly competitive cycle. Neatly, it includes a young Christopher Maltman in the First Symphony!
ClassicsToday review here.

available at Amazon
The Symphonies
+ orch. works
Naxos
Release: 2008
6 CDs

US | UK | DE



available at Amazon
The Symphonies
+ orch. works
Naxos
Release: 2008
6 CDs

US | UK | DE



available at Amazon
The Symphonies
+ orch. works
Naxos
Release: 1993 - 2004
6 individ. CDs


US | UK | DE



Richard Hickox*
(1997 – 2006*/2017)

London Symphony Orchestra
Susan Gritton, Gerald Finley, LSChorus, Rebecca Evans

This would have been Chandos' second intégrale after Thomson's, with Richard Hickox (in a way the younger pendant of Handley's, though, alas, they both died in 2008). In my discographic appreciation of those two, I wrote: "Hickox was a master of Vaughan Williams, and this [original version London Symphony], together with his recording of the Fourth Symphony (coupled with the Mass in g-minor) is the most successful and interesting of his near-complete (if surprisingly uneven) Vaughan Williams cycle. The 1914 original version isn’t a better work than the tightened 1936 revised one, but if you like Vaughan Williams and his London Symphony, then you won’t mind hearing more of it, with plenty new material thrown in and so passionately performed." Hickox got close; in the end, only symphonies Nos. Seven and Nine were missing. (He did record a lot of other miscellaneous RVW, though.) Oddly, Chandos has never released this 'almost-cycle' (some of which came out on SACD) as a physical set - only once as a USB set of mp3s. Edit: It has been rightly pointed out to me that Andrew Davis had de facto been tasked with the completion of this cycle, recording the Seventh and Ninth with the Bergen Philharmonic. This was finished only late 2017, when, in October, the Sinfonia antartica followed a terrific Ninth from February of 2017. Perhaps now, within a year or so, we will see a patched box appear.

available at Amazon
The Symphonies
+ other works
Hickox, LSO
Chandos
Release: individ.
7+CDs & SACDs


US | UK | DE



available at Amazon
Symphony No.9
+ Job
A.Davis, Bergen PO
Chandos
Release: 2017
SACD

US | UK | DE



available at Amazon
Sinfonia antartica
+ Cto. for 2 Pianos etc.
A.Davis, Bergen PO
Chandos
Release: 2017
SACD

US | UK | DE


Mark Elder
(2010 – 201?)

Hallé Orchestra
Katherine Broderick, Roderick Williams, Hallé Youth Choir, Schola Cantorum, Ad Solem, Sarah Fox, TBD, TBD

Mark Elder has been making fine recordings on the Hallé Orchestra's own label (the oldest orchestra-initiated label out there!) for years and he is nearing the completion of a Vaughan Williams cycle with just two symphonies (Seven and Nine) missing.That's enough for listing it already; the other conductors currently engaged in recording such cycles presumably won't beat him to the finish.

available at Amazon
The Symphonies
+ other works

Hallé Orchestra
Release: 2011 ff
individ. CDs

US | UK | DE




vaughan-williams symphony cycle complete overview, complete vaughan-williams symphonies

6 comments:

Jerry said...

A footnote to the Previn Vaughan Williams Symphony Cycle: Though the CD issues cited contain spoken inter-movement narration in the 7th Symphony
(as does Boult I), a practice that some consider a distraction, RCA did
issue that work in its Navigator series (29248) without narration.

jfl said...

Interesting, Jerry. Thanks for pointing that out.

David said...

HI JFL,

VW is one of my favourites, and I've heard all the cycles. I really think the Andrew Davis is undervalued, and would especially commend the 2nd and 4th as meriting a second listen! There is a kind of atmosphere and visionary aspect that I don't hear anywhere else to the same extent.

Joel said...

I actually LIKED the narration in Previn's performance of the 7th symphony. The spoken parts both set to introduce the movements and depict the mood and atmosphere of the work--along with the story of Robert Scott's ill-fated journey to the South Pole in 1911/1912. To me, it didn't hurt that Sir Ralph Richardson was the narrator and that his voice was very powerful.

jfl said...

Thanks for the comments. Interesting, David re: Davis. The sort-of 'word on the street' is that it is his Sixth that is particularly successful. Which is the one I have of that cycle. I'll keep the 2nd and 4th in mind when I start another attempt to better understand the composer... whom, despite having heard so many recordings so often, I still don't quite get, most of the time.

Alex and Justine said...

I see that Manze's new 7th includes the narrations (NOT separately cued, which must be a mistake...) by Timothy West, whom I admire but I think Ralph Richardson does it much better.

Strangely enough one of West's narrations sits on top of the music at one point (a bridging passage between two movements).