Gennady Rozhdestvensky / USSR State Symphony Orchestra

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphonies

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Some may have noticed this set of Ralph Vaughan Williams symphonies -- one of just a few complete cycles on the market -- showing up on best-seller rankings and featured-recording lists. And some may have wondered what the deal could possibly be, what with the garish pea-green design, almost a parody of 1970s classical album psychedelia, and, after sampling it, a pure specimen of late-Soviet the-highs-will-clip-and-you-will like it sound. The recordings were made in 1988 and 1989, with conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky leading the exquisitely, unpromisingly named State Symphony Orchestra of the USSR Ministry of Culture in live performances at the then Leningrad Conservatory. Rozhdestvensky conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the late 1970s, becoming one of the first Soviet conductors to lead a Western orchestra, and while there he developed an interest in English music and continued to conduct it in Russia. It's hard to say why he had such a feel for Vaughan Williams, but the short answer to why this box set is climbing the charts is that it's superb and often revelatory. It's not perfect by any means: the Walt Whitman texts of the Symphony No. 1 ("A Sea Symphony") are tough going for the singers of the Choir of the Musical Society of Leningrad and above all for the soloists, soprano Tatiana Smolaykova and baritone Boris Vasiliev. Yet even here there is an engagement with the music that's extremely attractive, and when Rozhdestvensky really connects in the larger pieces -- the Symphony No. 2 ("A London Symphony"), even if it too is a bit Russified, and above all the electrifying Symphony No. 7 ("Sinfonia Antarctica") -- the results are impressive indeed. There are many places in the set where Vaughan Williams' music seems to take on a weight one never realized it had, partly a product of Rozhdestvensky's deliberate tempos and ability to hold them together. The oddly named Symphony No. 3 ("Pastoral") here emerges as the wartime work it is, drawing on the composer's own battlefield experiences in World War I. Rozhdestvensky gets the momentum of the big fugal passages in the finales of several of the symphonies as few other conductors have (they are anything but references to academicism), and the slow movements shimmer with mystical import. The orchestra may not have been well known, but the strings have the smoothness to carry off these slow movements, and the brass and winds follow Rozhdestvensky through some very dense explorations. The brass parts in general blaze a bit brighter than is usual with these works, but the effect is stirring. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and one may well feel that Vaughan Williams' symphonies here acquire a universality that they never had before. Extremely exciting, and most strongly recommended.

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