For anyone looking to explore the symphonies of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) this famous set recorded by Sir Adrian Boult for HMV/EMI between 1967 and 1971, and reissued by Warner Classics at an attractive price, is still a clear first choice. While clearly not neglected on disc Vaughan Williams's symphonies are hardly ever heard in the concert-halls. There are first-rate complete sets by Bernard Haitink, Vernon Handley, and André Previn among others, yet one doesn't get any closer to his particular and ever-changing sound-world than with Sir Adrian Boult, who knew the composer since his Oxford student-days, premiered three of his symphonies and remained a close friend and lifelong champion of his music.
This was Boult's second survey of the symphonies after his pioneering Decca set from 1952-1958 recorded under the supervision of the composer – who sadly didn't live to see the completion of this project. While the older set isn't superseded, the EMI/Warner renditions are overall easier accessible, offering superior sound (and at times better orchestral playing) and remaining in the present beautiful transfers (from the late 1980s) as authoritative as ever. With his unique blend of distance and intensity, his structural grip and unerring evocative sense, the octogenarian Boult captures the characteristic mood of each symphony with supreme mastery. While the bulk is recorded with the London Philharmonic, Symphonies #3, 4 and 6 are performed by the New Philharmonia. There are first-rate soloist contributions by sopranos Margaret Price and Sheila Armstrong.
The nine symphonies have been grouped onto five discs kept in cardboard sleeves. Included is an extensive and informative essay on the symphonies by Vaughan Williams authority Michael Kennedy. This set can also be found in a larger package containing all Vaughan Williams recordings by Adrian Boult for EMI (903567-2), yet as an introduction to one of the most original symphonic legacies of the 20th century, this is the one to get.
Copyright © 2014, Marc Haegeman