VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 8 in d.   Symphony No. 9 in e.
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Bernard Haitink cond.

EMI  57086  (F) {DDD} TT: 52:10

For those of us who grew up on the Vaughan Williams of Barbirolli and Boult, the question becomes "Do I really need Haitink?" One knows, after all, of composers -- unlike, say, Beethoven or Mahler -- who don't really justify the necessity of many interpretations. You either hit the right road or you don't. It has little to do with the "goodness" of the music itself. I love the music of Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky, for example, but I don't feel that one good interpretation differs all that much from another good one. A great interpretation goes further along the same line as one less great.

I would have thought Vaughan Williams in this category, but Haitink makes me reconsider.This surprised me, since -- with the exception of his account of the Seventh, which I regarded as a lucky fit of the personalities of the work and of the conductor -- I hadn't considered Haitink particularly good in Vaughan Williams. To some extent, Haitink's readings reveal new things about these works. The Eighth, for example, critics tended to regard as "light" and "Schubertian," even if compared only with Vaughan Williams's other symphonies, much as Mahler's Fourth is only relatively light. The formal oddness of the symphony -- "themeless" variation first movement, winds-only second movement, strings-only third, percussion-loaded finale -- reinforced that impression, as if the composer were enjoying himself on a kind of bank holiday. Perhaps because he stands outside British life, Haitink emphasizes Vaughan Williams as a symphonic thinker. He has actually asked the question of what it means to write a set of variations without a theme. He has moved past the oddity to reveal an elaborate, taut symphonic argument based on the principle of continuous variation of a basic cell. The reading is more sober than what one usually gets. Under Haitink, the work acquires gravity, and furthermore gravity which it can sustain. The scherzo for winds becomes a sophisticated generation of rhythms through largely independent lines, much as the composer did in his Toccata Marziale of thirty years before, as well as more menacing. Haitink shows the finale as one of Vaughan Williams's most complex, rather than a mere jeu d'esprit. Again, Haitink takes Vaughan Williams seriously, giving the entire symphony a darker emotional hue.

This approach, however, comes up short in the slow "Cavatina" for strings. Michael Kennedy long ago pointed out that one finds many of Vaughan Williams's most heartfelt, passionate musical statements buried in what pass for "light" works -- this movement chief among them. Haitink gives a good account, but I miss Boult's warmth. Haitink's reading moves the work closer to something more stoically objective like the Sinfonia antartica. Some may prefer this point of view. As I say, I would have liked sweeter singing.

Vaughan Williams's Ninth is another story. It has sown confusion ever since it first came out, and we probably have only begun to take its measure. Donald Mitchell, one of the best British critics of the postwar era, made it one of his chief points of attack against Vaughan Williams: that it merely rehashed other earlier, better works. One sees the recapitulations, of course. The opening theme is the same general idea as the opening to the Sinfonia antartica. One also hears bits from the Sixth (particularly the finales to both), the First, the Third, and the Fourth. But there's a difference between a reuse and a rehash. To a great extent, Vaughan Williams creates -- like Mahler, Britten, Shostakovich, and even Rachmaninoff -- a personal set of musical images which show up in work after work. One must take this as a "gimme" before one has a chance of coming to grips with these composers. Nevertheless, the Ninth does puzzle even admirers of Vaughan Williams, like me for instance. It wasn't the repetitions, however, that bothered me, but a new emotional shape, highly elusive. Technically and formally, I could tell what Vaughan Williams did; I had no idea why he did it. I could follow the thematic argument, but I didn't know what it added up to.  Still, the work continued to fascinate me. I consider, from a purely technical point of view, the first and final movements the greatest the composer ever achieved. At any rate, the work didn't arrive at familiar points, not even Vaughan Williams's familiar points. It represents something different not only in his work, but in anybody's work.

Somehow, the symphony began with Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles, one of the most painful novels I've ever read. However, like most creative art, the beginning is not the end, and the symphony wound up as more than a commentary or a programmatic re-creation of the novel. One reason for the pain of Tess is Hardy's fatalism. You can see her undeserved doom coming from way off -- like waiting for the firing squad to shoot. Yet the symphony doesn't sound fatalistic. In my opinion, Vaughan Williams's Third -- written in the Twenties, when Hardy's novels were enjoying their first real boom -- comes closest to Hardy's view of the universe.  

The music of the Ninth goes through storms and uneasy peace and above all seems constantly to be asking questions, particularly at the end of movements. Michael Kennedy, an otherwise superb commentator on this composer, gives up after the formal discussion, but, to be fair, the symphony was still quite new and not all that much recorded when he wrote. Indeed, Decca did not choose to complete its symphonic series with Boult, and the first recording I believe appeared with Boult on Everest.  Wilfrid Mellers, writing at least twenty years later, I think has a handle on the symphony. He calls it "tragic."  I don't see it, myself. On the other hand, Mellers suggests a lot more. To him, the symphony explores simultaneously two futures. He bolsters this with formal analysis which shows the symphony proceeding along two distinct lines, tottering between two keys a semitone apart, and so on.  It feels different from, say, the Fourth or the Sixth, because there's no sense of conflict among these elements.  One instead finds oneself shifting back and forth among two separate places -- an almost geographic "punning": as if one started in Portsmouth and melted into Portland.

Boult, Previn, and Thomson strike me as Kennedy does. They give conscientious accounts rather than penetrating ones. I feel the symphony foxed them, but they determined to put it in the best light they could. Haitink's account I consider the first that actually grasps the emotion behind the notes.  Haitink's emotional restraint -- the very thing I complained about in his playing of the Eighth -- here works to his advantage. What one hears is two separate symphonic strands that occasionally join before moving apart again.  One line of development is grim, on the order of the final fugue of the Sixth Symphony.  Another is a kind of chorale, but one that doesn't stand for transcendence. It has the grit and striving of Bunyan's Pilgrim, without the theological overtones. Again, Vaughan Williams takes us on the journey of the soul to new spiritual places. To experience visions, one must be clear-eyed to begin with.  Haitink has this kind of granite and clarity, which this symphony seems to need more than warmth.  Haitink's account is currently the best I know.  

Sound is excellent.