This evening BBC2 screened a Proms concert from earlier this week of some of VW's work - The Tallis Fantasia, Serenade To Music and the Ninth Symphony, and for about two hours I was in hog heaven, particularly as the BBC Symphony Orchestra was being conducted by Sir Andrew Davies, one of my favourite conductors, a man who appears to twinkle at an orchestra rather than conducting them.
There was an interesting moment when, between musical bits, the presenters showed two of the soloists taking part in Serenade old footage of Malcolm Sargeant conducting the same piece, with VW himself sitting on the steps of the podium. And one of the soloists commented that under Sargeant they were taking the piece a lot more slowly than she and the rest of the orchestra were going to later.
This was picked up by one of the presenters who said that, if VW was sitting there, surely this must be the way the Serenade was meant to be performed, the correct way. And I thought that was a very good point. To which her co-presenter replied with some Blairite stuff about `feeling the music' and `making it your own,' which I thought was the classical music equivalent of `Shut up and sit down' and did him little credit.
I've been thinking about just this thing, on and off. Because of the length of a Vaughan Williams symphony, and the capacity of CDs, these days if you buy a symphony you'll find it bundled together with a lot of other stuff. I'm still a distance from having all the symphonies, but already I have several versions of the Fantasia, and a couple of versions of The Lark Ascending. And they're all different.
I first heard Fantasia On A Theme By Thomas Tallis when I was about eleven. I can't remember which orchestra was performing it but it was conducted by Vernon Handley and the recording was sponsored by Benson & Hedges, and to my mind that's the `perfect,' the baseline performance. It's the one that's in my head when I hear all other performances.
I have two recordings of the Fantasia on my Walkman, one of them conducted by Handley, and they're not right. One is almost right but there are places where stuff just goes too fast. The other one really charges through the piece. And The Lark is the same.
Which makes me wonder. What's the point of putting a time signature on a piece of music you're writing, if, fifty years later, people are going to ignore it in order to `make it their own'?
This of course doesn't amount to a hill of beans, but it's been perplexing me for a while.