Symphonies Nos. 2 & 5, Dona nobis pacem

London Symphony Orchestra
London Philharmonic Orchestra
BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus
The composer conductor


Vaughan Williams never pushed himself to the front as a conductor, even of his own works. But when the opportunity arose, on the showing of a limited number of recordings, he proved himself an accomplished director.  His, by all accounts unflashy style of direction, was able to draw dynamic, beautifully shaped performances. His works are not easy to bring off and it is a testament to his abilities as a conductor that everything is held so tightly together.

The works on disc one the London Symphony and the première of Symphony 5 come from off air recordings made by Kenneth Leech. Both have breaks within movements, caused by changing acetates.  They are rather distracting, but the actual orchestral sound is good. So too are the performances! RVW manages the sectional changes in the first movement of the London extremely well, and the wide dynamic ranges are beautifully captured. The cor anglais solo at the opening of the second movement sounds rather out of tune, and one of the side breaks occurs after only about 40 seconds which is annoying.  However once the big tune comes in on the strings things get better and there is a wonderful, hushed calm and a very careful control of rubato. But more side breaks spoil the big climax not once but twice. The scherzo arrives uninterrupted and is a thrilling ride.

What a wonderful thing it is to have the première of Symphony No. 5 conducted by the composer.  It is a no nonsense even brisk performance with the composer knocking almost 10 minutes off the time compared to modern performances. All movements except the Scherzo have multiple breaks. The cor anglais is rather stuttering in the opening for the Romanza and the oboes are a little sharp throughout.  But overall this is an unsentimental approach to one of the composers’ greatest utterances and the faster sections have real bite to them. There is a wonderful inevitability to the finale and the final chord is wonderfully radiant. It is good to hear the applause at the end.

The same forces begin disc two in the same work, this time from an 80th birthday concert. Both seem more comfortable with each other, and it is almost four minutes slower than at the première. The sound quality is generally better and developments in recording technology meant that there was no need for in movement breaks. Developments in recording technology meant that there was no need for in movement breaks.  Throughout the strings have a wonderful depth about them and the wind are generally better in tune, the brass add a rich patina to the overall sound. This is a heartfelt performance probably as close to the composer’s intentions as we can get.

We leap back in time for the final work on the disc, a 1936 performance Dona Nobis Pacem, recorded only a month after the works première with the same soloists. Many writers have speculated on Vaughan Williams relationship to religion.  Trudy Bliss (Lady Bliss) told me ’Ralph wasn’t a believer, but he loved the language’.  Here in his great cry for peace, he uses words from the bible, alongside Walt Whitman and John Bright. I am rather ambivalent about this work.  His setting of Whitman’s a Dirge for two Veterans, always seems too triumphal to my taste, the ‘convulsive drums’ are anything but. However, the choir and soloist give their all, and Ms. Flynn’s interjection into ‘The Angel of Death’ comes as a shock.

This is a wonderful release – how excited would we be if we had recordings of Beethoven conducting his own works – but the distractions of the edits on disc one will perhaps put all but enthusiasts off.  All credit to SOMM for producing these discs, and to Lani Spahr for the excellent remastering. They have done the musical world a great service.

Review by Paul RW Jackson