CD Review: Toronto Symphony aces emotionally charged Ralph Vaughan Williams symphonies


TORONTO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA/PETER OUNDJIAN
Ralph Vaughan Williams, Symphony Nos. 4 & 5 (tsoLive)

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s sixth release on its own tsoLive label is its best yet.

As with the other albums recorded in live performance at Roy Thomson Hall, this recording of Symphonies No. 4 and 5 by 20th century English icon Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) is conducted by music director Peter Oundjian, who brings his signature clarity to the interpretation.

Even better, some of the muddy sound quality from the earlier discs is gone, bringing each section of the orchestra into sharper relief.

This serves the music particularly well, because neither symphony is the soft-edged, Lark Ascending, sweet warm blanket of sound the world associates with Vaughan Williams. This is music with emotional bite and few places to lean back in comfort. Both symphonies, composed in the 1930s, reflect the harshness of a world in economic distress, a continent careening inexorably towards war, and Vaughan Williams’ own personal older-age miseries.

Think of these as a measured, English response to the tension and sarcasm of the music of Dmitri Shostakovich, and you get the picture. This is orchestral music that needs a listener’s full attention — and rewards it with a tense, satisfying roller-coaster ride.

And this is where Oundjian and his orchestra really shine.

From the crashing opening chord through the overt menace heard in the first and third movements, especially,  the F minor Symphony No. 4, which had its premiere in 1935, is a veritable bed of emotional nails leavened by interludes of relative calm or playfulness.

Don Anderson’s programme notes quote Vaughan Williams’ response during a 1937 rehearsal: “I don’t know if I like it, but it’s what I meant.”

Oundjian crafts the whole with razor-sharp precision matched in lock-step by the orchestra.

The world was an even darker place when the composer turned his attention to Symphony No. 5. It had its premiere in 1943, during what would have been particularly harsh times in London, but this symphony, which starts out in F Major, is a much warmer work, starting with an almost pastoral Prelude, smoothly underpinned by the orchestra’s double-basses.

Here, Oundjian lightens his grip a bit, bringing in big gulps of air into the score whenever the mood calls for it.

This is one of those recordings that offers up a little extra something with each listen — from both the quality of the interpretations and Vaughan Williams’ craft. These are beautifully written works expertly realised — a nice way for the Toronto Symphony to mark its 90th anniversary.

For more information and samples from each track, click here.

John Terauds

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