Vaughan Williams – Complete Symphonies

Richard Hickox/London Symphony Orchestra

Sir Andrew Davis/Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra

Chandos CHSA 5303(6) – 6x SACD

By Roy Gregory

Chandos has recently/finally (depending on your point of view) released the ‘complete’ Richard Hickox cycle of Vaughan Williams symphonies. The ‘complete’ is in inverted commas because, following Hickox’ untimely death in 2008, the cycle was completed when Sir Andrew Davis recorded Symphonies No.7 (Sinfonia Antartica) and No. 9 with the Bergen Philharmonic in 2016/17. Not that the switch is necessarily significant. Few if any listeners are going to listen to the cycle in its entirety – and certainly not at a single sitting.

Of more moment is the question of whether listeners will embrace this ‘new’ set, especially given the profile, range and availability of well-regarded alternatives. Top of the tree, certainly in audiophile terms, sits Sir Adrian Boult. His London Philharmonic/New Philharmonia set, recorded in the late ‘60s for EMI is one of the twin jewels in that label’s classical crown (the other being the Du Pré/Elgar Cello Concerto with Barbirolli) and justifiably so. Readily available on used vinyl and in a veritable plethora of CD sets, it is as widely owned as it is highly rated. Then there’s the Vernon Handley set, originally recorded for EMI with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and now available on the budget Classics For Pleasure label, while I also have a secret affection for Previn’s early ‘70s LSO recordings for RCA. Yet despite all these (and others) gracing my collection, this Chandos set has been a welcome addition.

That’s for two reasons. Firstly, the general standard of the performances is as excellent as it is individual and interesting, matched by both the recording quality and the SACD mastering. The space, orchestral layering and textures, particularly in the lower registers combine transparency with substance, impressive dynamic range and discrimination with natural perspective and tonality. Given the importance of unusual sonority and orchestral intensity to RVW’s work, it’s a near perfectly balanced presentation.

Secondly – and perhaps the key component in this equation – the London Symphony, RVW’s second and arguably his most popular, is here presented in its original form. Completed in 1913, the symphony went through two major revisions, in 1920 with the final 1936 version being the one that is generally accepted. But in the late 1990s, the composer’s widow, Ursula Vaughan Williams gave permission to record (although not to perform) the original 1913 score and it is that recording that features here. Originally released in 2001 and available separately as a hybrid SACD, you might well wonder why you’d want to buy nine symphonies to get the one you want. Except that in this case the six SACD box is an absolute steal – for example, it is currently available for €30 from Presto Music ––ralph-vaughan-williams-complete-symphonies.

All that for a slightly different version of a work the composer later revised? Well, slightly doesn’t really cover it. The Boult reading of the London Symphony runs to a shade under 43 minutes. Hickox, working from the original score times out at 61’27”! So – almost 20 minutes of extra music…