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Vaughan Williams: Symphony #5, Norfolk Rhapsody & The Lark Ascending; Bernard Haitink; Sarah Chang
Sarah Chang, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Bernard Haitink
Vaughan Williams: Symphony #5, Norfolk Rhapsody & The Lark Ascending; Bernard Haitink; Sarah Chang
Genre: Classical
  •  Track Listings (5) - Disc #1


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I totally agree with David Keyes
Robert L. Berkowitz | Natick, MA United States | 01/04/2003
(3 out of 5 stars)

"I was surprised to see that Mr. Keyes, a previous reviewer of this disc, got no "helpful votes" for his comments. My review would have said precisely what Mr. Keyes' review said.I purchased this disc when it first came out a few years ago. I already had performances of "The Lark Ascending" but had no recording of the Symphony No. 5. I have a habit of buying recordings that have at least one familiar piece -- it helps me ease into the less familiar work by allowing me to enjoy yet another performance of a more familiar work. I was very disappointed with Sarah Chang's performance and there was nothing in the performance of the Symphony No. 5 that compelled me to listen to it again. It took hearing a performance of the Symphony with Andre Previn for me to fully grasp its appeal.In my opinion, Mr. Keyes is exactly correct. The selections on this disc present an excellent introduction to the "pastoral" side of Vaughan Williams' musical output, but one can find better performances for each of these pieces. There are certain climactic moments in the Symphony no. 5, especially in the first movement, that should wash over the listener and leave him or her spellbound . These moments are lost in Haitink's account. Haitink takes a different approach that emphasizes a steady, structural development. One might not fault him for his differing approach but, for me, something absolutely essential has been lost from the symphony. I highly recommend the recordings by Vernon Handley and Andre Previn. Even the Naxos budget recording with Kees Bakels provides a more satisfying climax at those important points. Haitink, however, has the advantage of better stereo sound than Bakels. Previn, on Telarc, is state-of-the-art. Handley's recording on EMI has just the right ambience and warmth.Regarding "The Lark Ascending", I completely agree with Mr. Keyes that Sarah Chang rushes through it. Her tone is quite beautiful, but the performance feels perfunctory. I highly recommend the account by Nigel Kennedy coupled with his newer recording of the Elgar concerto. The classic recording by Iona Brown and the ASMF with Neville Marriner on a budget label has always been very satisfying."
Great Performances
D. A Wend | Buffalo Grove, IL USA | 10/13/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)

"I became interested in Ralph Vaughan Williams 5th Symphony after I heard a commentator say that if he knew he was shortly to die he would find it comforting to listen to this music. The symphony does have a seemingly calm outlook on life in general but this is also music that displays some turbulence as well. The symphony is beautifully performed her under the direction of Bernard Haitink, who has proved himself to be an extraordinary interpreter of Vaughan Williams' music.

The Fifth Symphony is dedicated to Sibelius, whom Vaughan Williams greatly admired. It was an about face for the composer after his "modern" Fourth Symphony and was considered his last word on the symphonic form when it was premiered in 1943. However, nobody suspected that as Vaughan Williams entered old age that his music would take an unexpected twist. For the most part, the Fifth Symphony is reflective and quotes some folk songs as well as music Vaughan Williams wrote for his unfinished opera on The Pilgrim's Progress. The music begins with a horn call and although the movement is pastoral and serene the strings have a stormy section that momentarily breaks the mood. The short scherzo has quick, dance-like tempos. The woodwinds make plaintiff calls that are harshly answered by the brass. The Romanza is a lyrical and serene movement until the middle section picks up the tempo with the brass playing a darker theme that is picked up by the stings. The finale is a Passacaglia with a brilliant section that mimics Alleluias followed by the return of the quiet opening horn theme that quietly ends the symphony.

Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 dates from 1906 and is a bucolic piece rich in folk songs. It was originally contemplated as part of a Norfolk symphony but the music ended up as three rhapsodies. The Lark Ascending from 1914 is among Vaughan Williams most familiar works, taking its title from a poem by George Meredith, and beautifully captures the feel of the English countryside. This recording is among the best with Sarah Chang giving a sensitive performance.

I have read two reviews here who think this recording is too fast (should they be blaming the conductor and not Ms. Chang). I have a recording of The Lark conducted by Sir Adrian Boult (another notable Vaughan Williams interpreter) that is two seconds faster than this recording. It seems to me that both reviewers have grown accustomed to a particular version and will brook no challenger. When performing music there is no letter of the law as to how slow or fast the tempo must be. As Igor Stravinsky said to Sir Colin Davis after a performance of one of his works, the temp of the music is only the beginning of what makes a performance.

This music on this disc is well performed and recorded, and you won't go wrong by purchasing it.
Klingsor Tristan | Suffolk | 10/24/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)

"At the first performance of Vaughan Williams' Fifth at a Prom concert in 1943, the symphony was generally seen as an old man's musical last will and testament, a calm vision of a heaven he was expected soon to join. Later it was dismissed as merely a pot-pourri of themes from his opera, Pilgrim's Progress (much as the Antarctica was later dismissed as a serious symphony for its use of film music from Scott of the Antarctic).

Both of these views seriously underestimate the work. The first was soon put paid to by the violent opening of the Sixth Symphony, never mind its bleak finale. As for the latter, it could be argued (and I would) that this is the most cogently argued and symphonic of all VW's symphonies. While the Fourth wears its Beehovenian ancestry on its sleeve a bit too obviously, the Fifth is a symphonic argument that is very much VW's own.

This point of view is reinforced by Haitink's performance on this disc. Throughout his cycle, Haitink brings a refreshing foreigner's view to this most quintessentially English music, placing the symphonies firmly in the great symphonic tradition of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, etc. through to Shostakovich and beyond. And nowhere more so than here.

Haitink is not afraid to take the long symphonic view of the work. The opening of the Preludio is dominated by the harmonic tension between the D Major of the main material and the long sustained C natural pedal on the basses. When this material from the opening movement returns in the finale (a moment which is suitably dramatic in Haitink's reading), that C natural finally sinks down to find the tonic that it seems to have been seeking throughout the symphony and sets us off on the miraculous polyphonic Epilogue where VW seems to be paying homage to his beloved Tudor Church composers.

Haitink also makes clear the relationship between the rising modal theme of the Scherzo (the only movement not to involve material from The Pilgrim's Progress) with the similar rising motif in the slow movement. This latter movement is wonderfully done by Haitink and his players. He makes clear the architectural importance of the arch of modal chords on which everything is based while still letting all the Romantic passion of the big climax shine through.

The Passacaglia finale is very finely done by Haitink, though I will never forget a magnificent performance by Simon Rattle where the central section of this movement danced as I have never heard it before or since and where that polyphonic Epilogue climbed sublimely into the ether. A recording with the Berlin Phil in their present form would be special, I think.

The fill-ups are played and recorded with magical delicacy and atmosphere - Sarah Chang's Lark is as fine as any. All in all, a most recommendable recording of this magnificent symphony.