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Freya Parr The best recordings of Vaughan Williams’s Pastoral Symphony


The best recording


London Symphony Orchestra/André Previn
RCA 88875126952

André Previn was principal conductor of the LSO for most of the 1970s, and during that period they made many wonderful recordings together. This A Pastoral Symphony was among the best of them, and it continues to set a high bar for other interpretations to aspire to.

The LSO was packed with outstanding section leaders at the time, and the quality of the solo playing eclipses that on any other recording. Violinist John Georgiadis, clarinettist Gervase de Peyer and flautist William Bennett all make telling contributions, as do the oboe and viola soloists, while the important horn and trumpet solos in the second movement are plangently expressive.

Previn’s shaping of the Pastoral has an organic, naturally unravelling quality that is deeply satisfying, and invites repeated listening. The dip and swell of VW’s string writing in the opening movement is sentiently registered, its uneasy dynamic surges unsettling the listener without grandstanding or over-emphasis.



The third movement has a grungy, glowering demeanour owing much to the LSO’s unshakable corporate virtuosity and Previn’s rhythmic trenchancy. Again, though, Previn deftly avoids overstatement – the physical threat carried in the music is palpable, but there is no unnecessary pummelling. The jittery fugal coda is incisively delivered, and for once seems more than a quizzical afterthought.

Heather Harper is an ideally steady, heartfelt soloist in the finale, her ‘distant’ placing (VW’s stipulation) not so distant that she is audibly in a different acoustic. The inherent sadness of the movement is mitigated by the dignified beauty of the LSO’s playing, shaped by Previn with unfailing sensitivity and insight. Together they find a moving positivity at the symphony’s conclusion, more stirringly articulated than in any other version.

The classic analogue sound is another telling factor in Previn’s favour. No other CD version of the Pastoral holds Vaughan Williams’s subtly intertwining textures so clearly in focus, and there is a tonal richness and plenitude which often seems absent in digital recordings.

Previn’s LSO cycle of the Vaughan Williams symphonies comes and goes in the CD catalogue, regularly finding itself deleted and then repackaged and reissued. It is, however, always available to download or stream. His Pastoral is a classic, the complete cycle an enduring cornerstone of the VW discography.




Three other great recordings


Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Kees Bakels
Naxos 8.550733

The Dutchman Kees Bakels was principal guest conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony when he made a near-complete cycle of the Vaughan Williams symphonies with the orchestra. Recorded in 1992, his Pastoral is a particularly fine interpretation, one of the most naturally flowing on disc. The recorded sound is a touch misty in tutti sections, but bass lines have a satisfying presence, and Patricia Rozario is a particularly evocative soprano soloist.



London Philharmonia Orchestra/Roger Norrington
Decca 458 3572

Roger Norrington’s 1997 Pastoral is among the quickest versions you’ll come across, bringing an added edginess to the opening movement in particular. Nowhere, though, is it superficial – both the second and fourth movements are full of expressivity and emotion, and the London Philharmonic’s excellent playing is captured in a resonant, rangy Decca recording. Norrington’s Pastoral is texturally leaner than Previn’s, and filled with flickering monochrome shadings suggesting the ghostly legacy of wartime conflict. Cumulatively it’s a notably moving experience, and as an interpretation has been seriously underrated.



Hallé Orchestra/Mark Elder
Hallé CDHLL7540

Vaughan Williams was once a pupil of Ravel, and no version of the Pastoral makes that clearer than Mark Elder’s 2013 recording with the Hallé orchestra. The opening movement in particular has a sensuality reminiscent of Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloé, but it has the necessary dark undercurrent too. The third movement feels slightly rushed and scrambled, but there is no doubting the depth of feeling in both Elder’s interpretation and the Hallé’s playing.



And one to avoid…

Adrian Boult was a great Vaughan Williams conductor, but his 1968 Pastoral with the New Philharmonia Orchestra is not his finest moment. Phrasing is often curiously glib and flat, and at times the deeper emotions of the music seem glided over. Rhythms are also relatively listless, and ensemble can be sloppy. The stereo recording has a greater range than his 1953 mono recording with the London Philharmonic, but that earlier version has a fire and vibrancy that the re-make cannot equal.



Alex Ross Miscellany

The formidable young composer/instrumentalist Tyshawn Sorey has a heavy schedule at the end of March. On the 28th, he will have a Portrait Concert at Miller Theatre in NYC, with performances by ICE and the JACK Quartet; on the 29th, he will appear at the Kennedy Center’s Direct Current festival; and on the 31st he will be back in NYC for a Zone Music Workshop with Chris Pitsiokos…. By design, no one is certain quite what will happen at the Yoko Ono evening at Disney Hall, part of the LA Phil’s season-long Fluxus series…. Also in LA, the revitalized Monday Evening Concerts presents Chaya Czernowin’s sensuously engulfing quartet-and-electronics piece HIDDEN with the JACK on March 25…. The Site of an Investigation, a new work for voice and orchestra by Jennifer Walshe, can be seen on YouTube, courtesy of New Music Dublin… The Boston-based vocal ensemble Blue Heron has undertaken a multi-season exploration of the complete output of Johannes Ockeghem; there’s much to explore on their website…. On Friday, March 22, the SEM Ensemble reprises their famous performance of Morton Feldman’s For Philip Guston at their Willow Place headquarters in Brooklyn. I wrote about SEM’s 1995 traversal for the New York Times…. On April 5, Marianne Schroeder, one of the greatest exponents of the brutally otherworldly music of Galina Ustvolskaya, will play the six sonatas at St. Peter’s in NYC, as part of the Blank Forms series.

from Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise

Freya Parr A guide to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2


Theater an der Wien, Vienna, 5 April 1803

On 6 October 1802 in the village of Heiligenstadt on the outskirts of Vienna, Beethoven wrote an impassioned letter to his brothers Carl and Johann. Including instructions that it should be read after his death, the ‘Heiligenstadt Testament’ describes in bleak terms the composer’s despair at the onset of deafness.

‘How could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than others, a sense which I once possessed in the highest perfection?’ he wrote. ‘…What a humiliation for me when someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard a shepherd singing and again I heard nothing.’



It was also while staying at Heiligenstadt over the summer months of that year that Beethoven composed the bulk of his Second Symphony. Does the composer reflect in this work the frustrations expressed in his letter? In fact, cast in a sunny D major, the overall mood of the Second is largely upbeat.

Here and there, though, there are moments that point towards the growling and fist-thumping composer of Beethoven’s later years. The score is scattered with brutal sforzandos and sudden, and dramatic, changes of dynamic markings. And listen out, too, for the moment at the end of the exposition in the long first movement when the key unexpectedly shifts from A major to an unusual and ever-so-slightly disconcerting D minor.



Beethoven's Second Symphony, performed by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
under Daniel Barenboim at the 2012 BBC Proms



Taken as a whole, Beethoven’s Second is by no means a game-changer in the course of classical music – that would come with the Eroica two years later. There are, though, already plenty of signs here that he was itching to go his own way. Take for instance, the third movement, where he ventures a step further along the path he’d already began to tread in the First Symphony – where tradition would normally place a courtly and graceful minuet and trio, here Beethoven presents us with a decidedly rustic scherzo.

And then there is the finale’s coda. Why follow convention by finishing with a charming little endpiece, when there’s the opportunity to go out in a blaze of timpani- and trumpet-adorned triumph? Here was a precedent that he would continue in the symphonies to follow.




And the Second Symphony’s reception? Not great, with the descriptions of some critics almost matching the colour and inventiveness of the work itself. Complaining about its ‘barbaric chords’, Paris’s Tablettes de Polymnie reckoned that it sounded ‘as if doves and crocodiles were locked up together’. Vienna’s Zeitung für die elegante Welt, meanwhile, described it as ‘a hideously wounded, writhing dragon that refuses to die’. Posterity has treated it more kindly.


Recommended recording:

Skrowaczewski and his Saarbrucken players bring a rare fire and fury to the first movement. And few can match their bonhomie in the following two movements – as the music bounces from orchestral section to section, masterfully paced by the conductor, one gets the impression of players thoroughly enjoying each others’, and Beethoven’s, company.

Saarbrucken Radio Symphony Orchestra/Stanisław Skrowaczewski


Words by Jeremy Pound. This article first appeared in the December 2015 issue of BBC Music Magazine. 


Freya Parr Free Download: Elgar’s Violin Concerto with Ning Feng

'Not a bar of it is uninvolving, and the recorded sound is excellent'

This week's free download is the second movement, Andante, from Elgar's Violin Concerto, performed by violinist Ning Feng with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under Carlos Miguel Prieto. It was recorded on Channel Classics and was awarded four stars for performance and five for recording in the February issue of BBC Music Magazine.


If you'd like to enjoy our free weekly download simply log in or sign up to our website.

Once you've done that, return to this page and you'll be able to see a 'Download Now' button on the picture above – simply click on it to download your free track.

If you experience any technical problems please email Please reference 'Classical Music Free Download', and include details of the system you are using and your location. If you are unsure of what details to include please take a screenshot of this page.

read more


Alex Ross New piano concertos by Adès and Adams

The Concerto Challenge. The New Yorker, March 25, 2019.

from Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise

Michael_Beek Max Reger

Max Reger

When not dismissed out of hand, Reger is often derided as the master of unwieldy German stodge. That’s unfair…

Max Reger

Think of three great composers active in the first decade of last century, all with two-syllable names ending in ‘r’. Elgar… yes. Mahler… yes. But the third? Max Reger. Max Who? That’s just the trouble. Reger is well known in his native Germany, but his name has obstinately refused to travel abroad.

Admittedly, Reger could be his own worst enemy.

read more


Freya Parr Five essential works by Elgar


Serenade for Strings

Elgar’s earliest masterpiece shows him already a master of writing for strings, with an infectiously lilting first movement, and a contemplative slow movement.

Recommended recording:
Sinfonia of London/John Barbirolli
EMI 567 2402



Enigma Variations

Though the ‘Enigma’ title continues to intrigue scholars, this series of musical portraits of Elgar’s wife and friends remain ever-vivid, especially the noble ‘Nimrod’.

Recommended recording:
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Adrian Boult
EMI 764 0152



Dream of Gerontius

Elgar’s dramatic oratorio, depicting the journey of a soul from death through purgatory to heaven, sounds in the best sense operatic rather than a stilted work for the church.

Recommended recording:
Richard Lewis, Janet Baker; Hallé Choir & Orchestra/John Barbirolli
EMI 391 9782



Symphony No. 2

The more flamboyant of Elgar’s two finished symphonies, the Second characteristically contrasts opening swagger with a sense of brooding apprehension and reflection, and includes a nightmarish whirlwind for a scherzo.

Recommended recording:
Hallé Orchestra/John Barbirolli
EMI 968 9242



Cello Concerto

Elgar’s final masterpiece, written in the aftermath of the First World War and shortly before the death of his wife Alice, is noble and restrained yet unmistakably expresses grief for an irretrievably lost era.

Recommended recording:
Jacqueline du Pré; LSO/John Barbirolli
EMI 562 8862


Freya Parr The best recordings of Rimsky-Korsakov


Christmas Eve

Tarkhov, Krasovsky; Radio Moscow Choir & Symphony Orchestra/Nikolai Golovanov
Documents 298348

This 1948 recording is full of character and worth hearing despite historic sound.



Overture and Suites from the Operas

RSNO/Neeme Järvi
Chandos CHAN 10369(2)

An excellent introduction to Rimsky-Korsakov’s fantastical side.



The Snowmaiden

Sokolik, Arkhipova; Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra/Fedoseyev
Relief CR 991049

A fine cast captures the charm and poignancy of Rimsky-Korsakov’s pantheistic opera.




Galusin, Tarassova, Gassiev; Kirov Chorus & Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
Philips 0704399 (DVD)

A superb cast in a wonderful production of one of Rimsky-Korsakov’s fairy-tale operas.




Hector Berlioz

Donald Macleod explores the life and music of Hector Berlioz

Berlioz is perhaps unique among composers in having had a literary gift almost the equal of his musical one. He earned his bread-and-butter living as a writer, turning out witty and often acerbic music criticism for the influential Journal des débats and Gazette musicale among others. Donald starts this week with a look at Berlioz through his engaging, passionate and entertaining Memoirs. Next, he delves into the world of Berlioz’s literary muses – first and foremost, Virgil, Goethe and Shakespeare. We hear about Benvenuto Cellini, the opera whose “verve, impetus and brilliance” Berlioz feared he would never again equal, and his attempt to secure the coveted Prix de Rome amidst the thundering July Revolution. We also encounter some of the celebrated musicians he rubbed shoulders with – among them Liszt, Cherubini, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Wagner and Paganini.

Music featured:
Les Nuits d’été, Op 7 (Villanelle)
Overture Les Francs-Juges, Op 3
Grande Messe des Morts, Op 5 (Dies irae)
La Damnation de Faust, Op 24 (extract)
Béatrice et Bénédict (Act 1)
Zaïde, Op 19 No 1
La Damnation de Faust, Op 24 (Part 2)
Waverley, grande ouverture, Op 1
Les Troyens, Op 29 (Act 1, finale)
Marche funèbre pour la dernière scène d’Hamlet (Tristia, Op 18)
La Captive, Op 12
Harold en Italie, Op 16 (IV. Orgie des brigands)
Le carnaval romain, Op 9
Benvenuto Cellini, Op 23 (extracts)
Messe solennelle (Quoniam tu solus Sanctus)
Épisode de la vie d’un artiste – Grande Symphonie fantastique, arr. Franz Liszt
Le roi Lear, grande ouverture, Op 4
Les nuits d’été, Op 7 (Absence)
Romeo et Juliette, Op 17 (Part 3)

Presented by Donald Macleod
Produced by Chris Barstow for BBC Wales

For full tracklistings, including artist and recording details, and to listen to the pieces featured in full (for 30 days after broadcast) head to the series page for Hector Berlioz

And you can delve into the A-Z of all the composers we’ve featured on Composer of the Week here:

from Composer of the Week

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