If the great English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was such a practiced conductor with almost half a century's experience on the podium leading everything from his own music to the St. Matthew's Passion, how come he made almost no commercial recordings? According to his widow, the reason was simply that, though he lived into the stereo age, no record company ever asked him to. Here, for example, is a disc featuring live recordings of the composer leading his Fifth Symphony and Dona Nobis Pacem, the former receiving its first CD release and the latter its first authorized release ever.
They are, beyond all argument, two of the very greatest performances of these very great masterpieces ever recorded. Of course, it must be acknowledged that Vaughan Williams was not an especially skillful conductor. Entrances sometimes go awry and tempos occasionally get waylaid. But these infelicities are a small price to pay for having the composer himself conducting. In the 1952 Fifth with the London Philharmonic, Vaughan Williams electrifies the musicians, eliciting from them playing of amazing subtlety, astounding power, and astonishing spirituality. Though primacy must always be granted to John Barbirolli and the London Symphony's sublime 1967 EMI recording for its tangible sense of blessedness, it must be acknowledged that the composer's interpretation gets further under the skin of the music -- and into the heart of the listener. In the 1936 recording of his anti-war cantata Dona Nobis Pacem, Vaughan Williams draws performances of immense expressivity from soprano Renée Flynn, baritone Roy Henderson, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus. For these forces, this was not merely another work by England's foremost composer; it was a personal call for peace in the face of the rising tide of fascism, and the climaxes here are shocking in the direct emotional appeal. While the sound of the 1952 Fifth is quite fine considering its age -- a bit coarse in tuttis, perhaps, but serviceable -- the sound of the 1936 Dona Nobis Pacem is raw, harsh, and sometimes grating. Still, this, too, is a small price to pay for the incomparable quality of the performances. Needless to say, anyone who loves Vaughan Williams has to hear this disc.