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Ralph Vaughan Williams : Les 9 Symphonies (Coffret 6 CD) Compilation
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Les 9 symphonies Sheila Armstrong, John Carol Case (n°1) - Margaret Price (n°3) - Norma Burrowes (n°7) London Philharmonic Choir (n°1, 7) London Philharmonic Orchestra (n°1-2, 5, 7-9) - New Philharmonia Orchestra (n°3-4, 6) Sir Adrian Boult EMI Classics UK (Royaume-Uni) poursuit son édition de coffrets de 5CD issus de la collection British Composers. Symphoniste majeur du 20e siècle, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) a composé pas moins de 9 symphonies (plus une partie d'une 10e, inachevée). Interprète enthousiaste et chevronné de Vaughan Williams, Sir Adrian Boult (1889-1983) en a donné 3 Symphonies en première en concert, et a enregistré 2 fois le cycle complet des neuf. On retrouve dans ce coffret les enregistrements des années 1960 réalisés à Londres aux Kingwsay Hall et à Abbey Road
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Vaughan Williams est tout simplement un des grands symphonistes du XXième siécles. On peut déplorer le manque de curiosité de nos orchestre nationaux.
A ce prix là, dans ce qui est très certainement l'intégrale la plus aboutie et qui bénéficie d'un très bon report des enregistrements de la fin des années soixantes, il ne faut pas s'en priver pour peu que l'on soit un tant soit peu curieux dedécouvrir autres choses que la enième version de la 5 de Mahler..dont pour clore tout débat j'ai trois versions.
En conclusion à mettre à côté de celles de Sibelius.
Avec son collègue Gustav Holst, il poursuivra l'élan initié par Edward Elgar.
Ayant étudié avec Max Bruch, admirateur de Maurice Ravel et de Sibelius, Vaughan Williams s'intéressa à tous les genres. Il voyageait beaucoup, recueillant dans chants populaires de son pays, des mélodies et des thèmes qu'il utilisera parfois dans ses œuvres.
Très proche de la nature, nombre de ses compositions en portent la marque : la 1ere symphonie porte le sous titre de " a sea symphony " (une symphonie de la mer) ôde à la mer parfois un peu pompeuse dans la veine de Elgar, la 3e celui de " pastoral symphony ", la 7e est sous titrée " sinfonia antartica . La 5e symphonie respire elle aussi les paysages tranquilles de l'Angleterre.
Ces symphonies ont été écrites entre 1910 et 1957, autant dire que le style évolue entre les trois premières, encore empreintes de folklore et d'airs populaires, et les suivantes beaucoup plus sombres et intellectualisées.
Ainsi la Symphonie n° 1 (A sea symphony) est une symphonie chorale avec un côté imposant, composée pour soprano, baryton, chœurs et orchestre enrichi d'un orgue. Cette œuvre est typique de la volonté de rupture avec la symphonie classique allemande, par son inspiration (chansons populaires anglaises) et par ses textes.
Toutefois il reste quelque peu néo-romantique à l'instar de Nielsen.
La symphonie n° 4 en fa mineur contrairement aux trois précédentes, ne comporte pas de sous-titre.Lire la suite ›
Il suit les chemins de Mahler, Chostakovitch...
A écouter sans modération pour s'imprégner de cette musique si méconnu des nous autres, français.
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It's a great shame that neither Barbirolli nor Hickox got around to recording a complete RVW symphonic cycle during their busy lifetimes; in which case this set might have had some genuine competition. The well-known and often-re-issued cycles by Vernon Handley (EMI), Bryden Thomson (Chandos), Bernard Haitink (EMI), Andre Previn, and Leonard Slatkin (both for RCA) are all competent, offering some interesting insights into the music, but none of them rise to the rarefied heights so decisively commanded by Boult, especially when one considers the improved sound in this new transfer. I was particularly disappointed by the superannuated sonics on EMI's recent 30-disc "Vaughan Williams Collector's Edition," featuring--somewhat mystifyingly--yet another issue of the Handley cycle; a disappointment which greatly influenced my decision to purchase this latest packaging of the Boult performances. In retrospect, I'm glad I did.
Boult's cycle has never been out of circulation since it first appeared. I remember collecting some of these performances on Angel (EMI-USA) LPs back in the mid-70s; the sound being fairly muffled and poorly defined, due in part to the sub-par pressings so common back then. I found better pressings and sound on His Master's Voice (EMI-UK) import LPs a decade later, and was able to more fully appreciate the scope and power of these interpretations. First in 1986, and again in 1991, EMI re-issued the cycle on a series of separate CDs as well as at least two subsequent complete box sets. As originally issued, those re-masterings fell somewhat short of the mark in my opinion, failing to take full advantage of the broader dynamic levels afforded by the new digital technology. In this regard, the first CD issues in no way superceded the 80s-vintage HMV LPs.
While this new set from 2011 relies on the same re-masterings from the late 80s and early 90s, the quality of the transfers is greatly improved. The sound that was excellent in 1986 is now nothing short of magnificent; wide-open, richly detailed, full and clear with nothing coming between the music and the listener. And this truly is great music, from a great interpreter who was as close to the musical mind of the composer as anyone before or since. Boult's reading of the choral "Sea Symphony" (#1) is taut, stirring and vividly paced; his "London Symphony" (#2) is a revelation of detail, and probably the finest interpretation of that most famous example of English impressionism ever to be recorded; the gentle "Pastorale" (#3), the noble, stirring 5th; the acerbic 4th and 6th; the wry and rollicking 8th, the autumnal 9th, and the extended cinematic tone-poem of the 7th are all brought to glorious life on these recordings; sheer, unalloyed pleasure.
This set is recommended with no reservation whatsoever.
In the stereo era the main candidates are conducted by Boult - his stereo remake - Presvin, Slatkin (two Americans with strong British ties), Vernon Handley, Bryden Thomson, Bernard Haitink, and Andrew Davis. There is also a bargain cycle on Naxos divided between two conductors, Kees Bakels and Paul Daniel. On some lists the Naxos runs neck and neck with some illustrious predecessors. Bakels offers the more daring readings while Daniel scores a triumph with a very well recorded Sea Symphony.
Since I've reviewed so many of these recordings and am acquainted with more, let me provide a thumbnail sketch of their relative merits.
This has long been the must-have cycle, since Boult was closely associated with the composer and conducted several premieres. More importantly, he comes close to RVW's own conducting style, as heard on a historical recording of Sym. 4, which is quick-paced, robust, and forthright. Boult was recording some of the symphonies, such as A London Symphony, quite late in life, but he maintains his customary energy in all of them. The London Phil. performs with unflagging vigor, and EMI's sonics from the mid-Sixties to early Seventies hold up well. The latest remastering is from the mid-Eighties, I think, so we could use an update to remove some upper range shrillness.
The only score that is truly difficult to record, the mammoth Sea Symphony, doesn't receive exemplary sound, but the two soloists, Sheila Armstrong and John Carol Case, are clear in their enunciation, which counts for a lot when you consider how much RVW loved the Whitman poetry that gave him his text (and texts for several other major works like Toward the Unknown Region). Since Boult's cycle has no weak links, for a first-time buyer the choices may start and end here.
As chief conductor of the London Sym., Previn gained the highest position that any American has achieved in the UK, and his cycle features strong playing by the orchestra. Some of the interpretations (Sym. 1-3 come to mind) are first rate, and sometimes, as in Sym. 6, he rivals Boult in gusto. The sound isn't uniform; I found A Sea Symphony to be dated, although it boasts two strong vocal soloist in Heather Harper and John Shirley-Quirk. Sinfonia Antartica, which has a stirring speaker for the written snippets in Sir Ralph Richardson, is a weak link; it's under-dramatized. I will say in all fairness that published critics praise the sound on this cycle more than I would, but there is certainly an advantage in RCA's inclusion of many fillers straight from the original discs, so at a low price for the box set you get many bonuses besides the symphonies.
In general, even though few of his individual readings really top Boult's, Previn's cycle is consistent and very well played.
Score: B+/B- ?
In the boom years of digital recording, RCA could venture to produce a second cycle under an American conductor, employing the superb Philharmonia Orch., which otherwise hasn't been prominent in the Vaughan Williams discography. At present these recordings are individually deleted but have reappeared in 24-bit sound in a super budget box set. I'm giving the cycle a question mark because, despite owning a few discs from it, there's no way for me to refresh my memory of the rest. To be frank, I consider Slatkin a mediocrity and would be surprised if any of his readings were superb, but what I own - Sym 1, 5, and 6 - are well done if not exactly memorable. My rating should be taken with a grain of salt.
Vernon Handley (Classic for Pleasure/ EMI)
The late Vernon Handley wasn't given much prominence on major labels - although he did a terrific London Symphony for EMI - and his Royal Liverpool Phil. wasn't in the same league as the great London orchestras. Nevertheless, this is the sleeper among all the cycles. Handley was a master in these works, and sometimes, as with Sinfonia Antartica, his version easily rivals the best. Now that the used market sells the bargain Classics for Pleasure issues very cheaply, all in good sound, anyone can have an impressive cycle without undue expense. I only know about half of these recordings but feel confident in Handley's abilities, and scouring British online sources I see quite a few, such as Sym. 3-5, recommended by BBC 3's Building a Library program.
Bryden Thomson (Chandos)
Score: A-/B- ?
Another question mark, since I only know a handful of Thomson's recordings. They are notable for featuring the London Symphony in big, cinematic sound from Chandos. At the same time, the critical hit on Thomson, a Scot who died prematurely in his early sixties in 1991, was that his readings tended to be literal, that is, without much personal expression. I don't know if that's fair, since RVW himself was such a no-nonsense conductor. Chandos's wide, deep sound stage certainly makes the symphonies sound like blockbusters. For all his virtues, Boult is left in the dust so far as sonics are concerned. A deciding factor may be economics - these out-of-print CDs often cost as much individually as Handley's entire cycle.
Bernard Haitink (EMI)
Score: A/B ?
When Solti headed the London Phil., Boult's iconic orchestra, he didn't compete with his predecessor by recording any Vaughan Williams symphonies. But Haitink took the plunge when his time came. He may have been the first Dutch conductor to record an RVW symphony (proximate as the two countries are, I don't get the feeling that this music has traveled to Amsterdam). British critics were iffy about the results. EMI provided lovely sound, but it's unmistakable that Haitink isn't trying to be a second Boult. His readings are sophisticated in a European way that eschews the local English color of the composer's idiom. I only know a handful of the recordings and find them appealing, if somewhat soft grained and relaxed. EMI seems to have lost faith in the Haitink cycle, which is out of print. The box set remains a bargain, for the time being, at Amazon Marketplace. When an internationally renowned conductor turns to these scores, it's worthwhile taking a listen.
Andrew Davis (Warner/Teldec)
Here's another cycle where the individual CDs are out or print but there's a bargain box set. Davis recorded the symphonies with the BBC Symphony in quite good sound, and all the essentials are in place, including good playing. I can't refresh my memories here - hence the question mark - but the original reviews focused on the good sound and were iffy about the conducting. As with Richard Hickox, who only completed a partial cycle in SACD sound for Chandos before he died, Davis can be a bit generic. Hickox made a splash when he recorded the long original version of A London Symphony, which immediately became a must-listen, and his reading of A Pastoral Symphony is strong. Davis has a superb Sym. 6, a good place to start if you are interested in him. But my instinct guides me toward Bryden Thomson instead if I want big sound and more character than Hickox and Davis supply. Another partial cycle is the ongoing one from Sir Mark Elder and his Halle Orch., but what I've heard so far has been a little faceless and lacking in oomph, nicely played and recorded though the series is.
Summary: I don't own any of these complete cycles in a box set, since they would duplicate too many individual CDs. The British know this music so well that the standard recommendation - Boult - followed by Handley as a budget choice, is certainly reliable. Many American collectors will be satisfied to own just a single cycle, so there you go. But there's enough flavor in the Haitink and Thomson readings to tempt anyone to look further. Slatkin and Previn will probably appeal to deep-dyed enthusiasts or hunters after bargains in box sets.
While his shorter pieces like the Tallis Fantasia are well known, Vaughn Williams' symphonies have fallen somewhat out of favor. I have heard only one performed live in recent years (the 4th by the Baltimore Symphony). These are great works but you will find a far variety of styles here.
If the love the Tallis Fantasia, then the pastoral third and the luminous fifth symphonies are in the same boat - beautiful works that seem to suggest the English countryside. On the other hand, the astringent Fourth and the mysterious Sixth seem almost from another composer - far more dissonant and angular and clear reminders that VW lived during the war years of British history.
The rambunctious London Symphony (#2) is almost a movie score for a great city, while the chillingly atmospheric Symphony #7 is derived from a film score VW wrote for Scott of the Antarctic. The first symphony is a grand choral work while the final two symphonies are more experimental - lots of tuned percussion instruments and very fluid musical forms.
Boult leads the orchestra with assurance through all these far ranging musical styles. The sound is a bit dated but all in all still fresh and lively - you will hear many colorful passages full of instrumental details. For me, the lovely Fifth Symphony and the haunting seventh come off best here, but you cannot go wrong with this quite affordable set. Vaughn Williams wrote many scores full of pastoral beauty, but as this set proves, he wrote a lot more than that.