Symphonies 6 and 9, The Wasps Overture

BBC Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Malcolm Sargent


Vaughan Williams’s 150th birthday is celebrated this year and thankfully there are many events celebrating the great man. This CD is the first in an important series from SOMM comprising of re-masterings of historic performances. 

The first work is the ever-popular overture to The Wasps from 1909, in a live performance from the BBC SO at the 1957 BBC Proms. It bustles along neatly under Sargent’s baton, with clean entries and great clarity in the moments of counterpoint. The applause is warmly deserved.

The Sixth Symphony is taken this time from the BBCSO at a 1964 Prom. Sargent had by this stage conducted the work many times and near the end of his life we have to take this as his considered opinion of the piece.  It is an efficient workmanlike approach, brusque even, there is no wallowing over the big melody or sentimentality. 

The turbulent opening sounds a little scrappy but then the orchestra settles down and the entries are neat and the pace well judged.  For a live recording there are some wonderful moments from the saxophone which often gets submerged in the texture. The second movement is bleak with some beautiful sound from the strings. The 92 repeats of the trumpet tattoo become a little wearing after a while, and there is a sense of relief when they stop, perhaps that is what the composer wanted. 

The scherzo sounds very fast, but very tidy, even when the trumpets sound pushed to their limits by the speed. The weakest movement is the finale which sounds prosaic.  It is not that it is too fast or too slow, Sargent follows RVW’s metronome mark, but there is no real shaping of the phrases, the notes are being played, but is it musical? The sound quality is acceptable for the period.

The highlight of the disc is the recording of the première of the 9th Symphony given on 2 April 1958. The performance has had a reputation for being inadequate, and that this was largely responsible for the poor reception by the press.  In Michael Kennedy’s study of the composer, he notes critics that thought the work ‘silly’ and ‘asinine’. So, is this the case? 

We need to remember that the orchestra only had one 3-hour rehearsal, paid for by the composer, on 21 March before the final rehearsal and performance.  The orchestra would have been familiar with RVW’s style but there are still tricky moments in the symphony that need careful preparation. As an orchestral trainer Sargent was fine.  The contrapuntal entries are clean, particularly in the tricky scherzo which has many points where it can collapse. But once again it is the shaping of the work as a whole that is lacking.  The finale is just a tad too fast, and its sectional nature is laid bare.  There is no attempt to pull the whole together with emotional integrity.

That said, it is not the bad performance we have been led to believe. It is again a workmanlike reading, perhaps the best we could expect under the circumstances.  It was the critics who were at fault in not seeing the majesty of the work.  Happily, times have changed.

Review by Paul RW Jackson