This two-disc set coupling Vaughan Williams Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth symphonies plus three shorter works features two different orchestras -- the Royal Philharmonic and the Bournemouth Symphony -- and three different conductors of three different nationalities -- Romanian Constantin Silvestri, Finnish Paavo Berglund, and British Alexander Gibson.
Surprisingly, the British conductor comes off the worst. Silvestri's 1967 recordings of The Wasps Overture and the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis are well enough played by the Bournemouth Orchestra, but Silvestri pushes the Overture's tempos a bit too hard and pulls the Fantasia's textures a bit too out of shape to make convincing cases for the two works. But Berglund's Fourth and Sixth are entirely convincing, even compelling performances. Neither sounds quite like Vaughan Williams as we usually hear him: the colors are too stark, the attacks are too strong, and the textures too severe for the standard English interpretations. But the Fourth and Sixth are Vaughan Williams' two harshest and most driven works, and Berglund's assaultive approach works very well with them, particularly when played with the kind of furious intensity the Bournemouth brings to the Sixth and the Royal Philharmonic brings to the Fourth. In comparison even to Silvestri, however, Gibson's Fifth is entirely disappointing. The Royal Philharmonic's ensemble playing is amazingly sloppy, and the strings, particularly the violins, are often quite scrappy. Worse yet, Gibson doesn't make enough of the phrase markings and dynamic contrasts, and the Fifth, one of Vaughan Williams' most lyrical utterances, never really sings as it does under Boult and especially Barbirolli. In sum, then, this set will be of some interest to ardent Vaughan Williams fans, but of less interest to those who do not already admire his music.