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Classic FM picks the top recordings of Vaughan-Williams' masterful work - a symphony with an outer air of tranquility, but tension at its core.
It’s hard to believe that this symphony was written during some of the darkest days of the Second World War as it has a general aura of peace. But there are moments when an undercurrent of anxiety surfaces that reminds one of the horrors of that period.
Vaughan-Williams began sketching what was to become his Fifth Symphony in 1936, although the music he began writing was intended as part of an opera called The Pilgrim’s Progress. It wasn’t until two years later that he decided to divert these ideas into a new symphony and began working on the Fifth in earnest.
It was first performed at the Proms on June 24,1943 with the composer at the helm of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. He was 70 at the time and many thought that the work had a valedictory air about it. This couldn’t have been further from the truth as he composed four subsequent symphonies, although his Fifth Symphony is widely regarded as one of his finest achievements.
What better way to start our journey through the many recordings than by the one conducted by the composer himself at the Proms in 1952? Although this radio broadcast has been sympathetically mastered a few crackles remain, but don’t be put off by this as what emerges is a performance of great commitment and substance.
The same can be said of Adrian Boult’s interpretation – a full-blooded account that wholly conveys the first movement’s tempestuous elements and captures the brief Scherzo with poise.
Bryden Thomson is a little more fleet-footed here and dashes off this second movement with great panache. The engineering is first class; as it is, if perhaps even more so, in Richard Hickox’s riveting account, where he skillfully negotiates the symphony’s varying contours and moods. The opening cor-anglais melody of the Romanza is arguably the most expressively played of all our contenders and heralds a heartfelt interpretation of this lyrical third movement.
We end with another great champion of British music, Vernon Handley, who produces a passionate and lovingly prepared reading. He deals with the emotional climaxes of the Passacaglia finale most persuasively.
This is certainly a battle of the British conductors, each of them suggesting a love affair with this divine symphony, but the one who will leave you in awe of the work’s sheer magnificence and beauty is Richard Hickox.
THE RECORDING TO OWN
London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox
Hickox and the LSO are on outstanding form here. There are very few recordings one could describe as faultless but this surely is one of them. Chandos CHAN 9666
■ London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vaughan-Williams A fascinating and thoroughly worthy document, despite its aged sound quality.
Somm SOMM 071
■ London Philharmonic Orchestra/Adrian Boult
Boult draws some exquisite playing in a performance of great stature.
EMI Classics 764 0182
■ Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
Available at budget price, but Handley and the RLPO are definitely full value.
EMI Classics 575 3112
■ London Symphony Orchestra/Bryden Thomson
Thomson’s affinity with this music is there for all to hear.
Chandos CHAN 8554