The music of Ralph Vaughan Williams seems to have found its ideal contemporary interpreters in the Hallé Orchestra of Manchester and conductor Mark Elder. They've released several strong recordings of the symphonies, and they've outdone themselves with this one, featuring the deceptively named Pastoral Symphony: pastoral it may be, but it carries unmistakable overtones, especially in the slow movements, of Vaughan Williams' experiences in World War I. The orchestra manages a consistent somber tone that's remarkable in itself and is introduced by an equally noteworthy Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. This work is played so often by English orchestras that phoned-in performances are common, yet the sensuous pleasure in the neo-Renaissance sonorities here is palpable. At the other end of the familiarity spectrum are the Five Variants of "Dives and Lazarus," not variations on a theme but five versions of the same folk tune, collected by the composer and woven together into a unique fantasy. The mood truly lightens only with the finale, the Overture from Vaughan Williams' incidental music to the ancient Greek comedy The Wasps. These are superb performances in which the composer's intentions seem to live anew.
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AllMusic Review by James Manheim