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

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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.

 

https://open.spotify.com/embed/album/2LhNnGbQINkuyCtZYI5k9M

 

 

 

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.

 

https://open.spotify.com/embed/album/44SRvvSqOR3NnuVkJi53S8

 

 

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.

 

https://open.spotify.com/embed/album/0Tl1LimYcDGph8R3Jre1ma

 

 

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.

 

https://open.spotify.com/embed/album/6oh3zPBUxUYXxuKC2IfDKk

 

 

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.

 

https://open.spotify.com/embed/album/0XrHBYma2wmmzz3dCxPuhz

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

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Premiere:
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.’

 

Tonality:

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

 

Rule-breaking:

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.

 

 

Reception:

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
OEHMS OC522

 

https://open.spotify.com/embed/album/1CahPjeSeaoZNpK2ujSwJR

 

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

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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.

DOWNLOAD INSTRUCTIONS:

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 support@classical-music.com. 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.

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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.

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Freya Parr Five essential works by Elgar

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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

https://open.spotify.com/embed/album/5N69GIwxQChXEYdwmG4NyM

 

 

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

https://open.spotify.com/embed/album/2TM5vanNqnVzeUovSArNZR

 

 

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

https://open.spotify.com/embed/album/20ZbWsNyrpvmbGm9T6eWHV

 

 

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

https://open.spotify.com/embed/album/2Dw0O07F0io6U8MBCWweSp

 

 

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

https://open.spotify.com/embed/album/3M8H71qJ70vI600QZH2AdJ

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Freya Parr The best recordings of Rimsky-Korsakov

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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.

 

https://open.spotify.com/embed/album/19iOwHrJ5FC54E9it40PW8

 

 

Overture and Suites from the Operas

RSNO/Neeme Järvi
Chandos CHAN 10369(2)

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

 

https://open.spotify.com/embed/album/1zj2WK4KDC2WYaV4UBLJFZ

 

 

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.

 

https://open.spotify.com/embed/album/1g1SWJslmPm4sZUltQ7bIA

 

 

Sadko

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.

 

 

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Six of the best: operas about Roman leaders

Julius Caesar

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At a meeting of the senate in the year 44 BC, Julius Caesar was stabbed to death – an event that would eventually lead to the transition from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire. This assassination, as any Shakespeare enthusiast will know, took place on the Ides of March – that's the 15th on today's calendar.  

In the centuries since his untimely demise, Julius Caesar – and a host of other Roman leaders and emperors – have featured in great operatic works by the likes of Mozart and Handel among many others. As historical subject matter for opera goes, these Roman figures lives provided music inspiration from the 17th century onwards.

Here, then, are six of the best operas with Roman leaders at the centre of their plots:

 

1. Claudio Monteverdi: L’incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppaea)

The first known opera to be based on a factual historical subject (as opposed to mythology), Monteverdi’s masterpiece tells the story of Poppaea, who was able to manipulate her position as the mistress of Nero (emperor, 54-68) to be crowned empress. If anything, Monteverdi tones history down a little – while Poppaea comes across as a nasty piece of work in the opera, by all accounts she was far worse in real life (as was, of course, Nero himself). This opera in three acts was first performed at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice between 1642-43. Though Monteverdi is noted as the composer for the work, it is a matter of dispute as to whether or not all of the music was written by him.

 

2. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: La clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus)

Though his reign was short lived, Titus (emperor, 79-81) was the perfect subject for this 1791 opera commissioned for the coronation of Emperor Leopold II, King of Bohemia. This two-act opera seria was Mozart’s first operatic work to be performed in England and, though it tells the story of Emperor Titus, he is the only historical character in the work. The plot dwells on the noble qualities of the Roman emperor as he spares the lives of those who try to assassinate him. The real Titus did, in fact, avoid being bumped off, dying instead of natural causes – quite a rarity in early Roman imperial days.

 

3. George Frideric Handel: Giulio Cesare in Egitto (Julius Caesar in Egypt)

Giuiio Cesare (premiered 1724) is undeniably one of the longest and most elaborate of Handel’s operas and its rich historical subject matter has made it the most revived of his stage works. The plot centres around the arrival of Julius Caesar (dictator, 49-44BC) in Egypt following the defeat of Pompey at Pharsalia in Greece. On learning of the assassination of Pompey by Ptolemy, King of Egypt, Caesar is disgusted and, assisted by Pompey’s family and Cleopatra, seeks revenge. Though there are plenty of twists and turns along the way, eventually good overcomes evil and the odious Ptolemy meets his come-uppance. Much of the opera, though, is really about the growing infatuation of its title character with the ultra-seductive Cleopatra.

 

4. Arrigo Boito: Nerone (Nero)

Nerone was premiered in 1924 at Teatro alla Scala, Milan. Boito (1842-1918) spent approximately 50 years working on the opera, which was both his second and his final operatic work – alas, he died before it was completed and the music had to be completed by several other composers. The plot depicts Ancient Rome during the rule of Nero and highlights the difference in lifestyle between the Romans (debauched) and the Christians (noble) and ends with the Great Fire of Rome.

 

5. Detlev Glanert: Caligula

Premiered in 2006, this four-act opera delves into the life of Caligula (emperor, 37-41) and his tyrannous and sadistic reign following the death of his sister, Drusilla. Glanert based his work on a drama by French writer, Albert Camus, and his frantic orchestration is reflective of the mental conditions of Caligula during his rule. The opera combines ideas of mass murder, incest and rape as a way of expressing the madness of the final years of an emperor who, early in his reign, had actually been remarkably liberal and benign as a ruler.

 

6. Antonio Vivaldi: Ottone in Villa (Otho in the Country)

Ottone (Otho, emperor, 69) features as a protagonist in Vivaldi's 18th-century opera, though his role is more as a lover than a heroic Roman leader. Vivaldi’s first opera, it revolves around the character of Cleonilla, mistress of Ottone. The story is pastoral, following the different romantic excursions of the emperor’s mistress as she fawns for the attention of Caio and Ostillo. It turns out that Ostillo is a woman and lover to Caio and the opera concludes with their marriage. The real-life Otho, meanwhile, did not enjoy a happy time as emperor, ruling for just three months during which he faced a major rebellion and then committing suicide.

 

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Michael_Beek Six of the best… works by Lili Boulanger

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Faust et Hélène (1913)

Based on a poem by Eugène Adenis – itself based on Goethe’s Faust – Boulanger crafted a thirty-minute cantata for choir and orchestra, featuring solo parts for mezzo-soprano, tenor and baritone. The work won her the 1913 Prix de Rome, the first time the prize had been awarded to a woman composer. She is said to have written it in just four weeks.

 

Du fond de l’abîme (1914-17)

This ambitious work, based on Psalm 130, was on Boulanger’s writing desk for a long while, largely thanks to the outbreak of war. During the war years, the composer volunteered for the Franco-American Committee; she also became quite ill during this period. The work is arranged for contralto, tenor, chorus, organ and orchestra.

 

 

Vieille Prière Bouddhique (1914-17)

Another work which Boulanger had to find time to return to during the war years was her take on a Buddhist prayer (indeed ‘a daily prayer for the whole universe’). An intensely spiritual work, it remains one of the composer’s greatest accomplishments and sits in quite stark contrast to the more nihilistic Du fond de l’abîme of the same period.

 

La princesse Maleine (1916-18)

The writer Maurice Maeterlinck was no stranger to his works being taken on by composers; the most famous example might be Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Maeterlinck’s La princesse Maleine, however, was one piece he was quite protective of. The only composer he allowed to take it on was Lili Boulanger. It’s said she identified greatly with Maleine, but progress on the five-act opera was slow and she struggled to complete the work. Only fragments of it remain, which leads most scholars to believe it went unfinished.

 

 

D’un soir triste / D’un matin de printemps (1917-18)

This two-part work was completed just a couple of months before her death in 1918, the first half being the moving portrait D’un soir triste (Of a sad evening). Boulanger originally arranged the piece for cello and piano. The second half, D’un matin de printemps (Of a spring morning), is the sprightlier of the two works that make up this musical diptych, and was originally arranged for flute/violin and piano. Both halves were also arranged for piano trio and orchestra.

 

Pie Jesu (1918)

Her final work, the Pie Jesu is a deeply emotional and personal work that is in many ways her own Requiem. So unwell was she while working on the music, she actually finished it on her deathbed, dictating what was required to her sister. Nadia Boulanger is said to have been so distraught at Lili’s death, she turned her back on her own composing and decided to focus on teaching instead.

 

 

 

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Freya Parr Five facts about composer Georg Philipp Telemann

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JS Bach is regarded as the greatest German Baroque composer today, but back at the start of the 18th century, it was Telemann who ruled the roost.

 

1. Telemann was so revered in his day that he was the favourite for the Thomaskirche job back in 1722. Fortunately for JS Bach, Telemann turned the post down. In fact, Bach was something like fourth choice for the post of Thomaskantor, or music director.

 

 

2. Bach and Telemann may have been competitors, but they were also linked personally. Telemann was CPE Bach (JS’s second surviving child) godfather, although it should be noted that that did not mean that that JS Bach and Telemann were friends. It was CPE Bach who took over as the director of music of Hamburg’s five principal churches when Telemann died in 1767. 

 

3. He was one of music’s most prolific composers, writing in excess of 3,000 works, or almost three times as many as Bach and five times as many as Mozart. His stylistic range is incredible too, able to write equally proficiently in the French, Italian and German styles.

 

 

4. Telemann had an interesting love life. His second wife regularly cheated on him and built up massive debts before leaving him in the lurch. The composer was eventually bailed out by his friends.

 

5. Somehow, Telemann also found time for gardening, at which he excelled. ‘I am insatiable where hyacinths and tulips are concerned, greedy for ranunculi, and especially for anemones,’ he wrote once in a letter. He spent a good deal of time in his Hamburg garden and exchanged bulbs and plants with renowned botanists across Europe.

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