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Double Double.

We'll start by getting the standard explanation out of the way: In Double Double, Tom Lyle and Ye Grumpy Olde Editor independently compare two recordings of the same musical work. Our interaction with each other goes only so far as to decide which recordings we are going to compare. This time around, we thought it would be interesting if one of the recordings was on the Naxos label. After discussing a few possible pieces of music for comparison, we decided it would be fun to compare the new Naxos recording of the Vaughan Williams Sinfonia antartica by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by the young Dutch conductor Kees Bakels (Naxos 8.550737, recorded in 1996, released in 1998) with the venerable 1970 recording of the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the late Sir Adrian Boult (EMI Classics CDM 7 64020 2, released in 1991). Unusually, neither TL nor I owned either of these CDs at the time we decided that these would be the recordings we were going to compare (I had once owned an LP version of the Boult, but never picked it up on CD -- meaning I had not played this version in at least a decade), so we were both coming at both recordings with fresh ears. Let's see what we heard ...

TL: When KWN suggested that we write a Double Double article on Vaughan Williams's Seventh Symphony pitting the much beloved Sir Adrian Boult version on EMI with a release on the budget Naxos label, I though he was kidding. But when he informed me that this Naxos disc features a performance of none other than the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, I quickly agreed that this indeed would be an excellent comparison.

By the time his 1970 EMI recording was made of the Seventh Symphony, Sir Adrian Boult's reputation as an interpreter of Vaughan Williams's works had been firmly established. I don't think that the version by the relatively young Dutchman Kees Bakels is likely to shed any new light on the intentions of the composer. But I'll say one thing, this Naxos CD is pretty darn good -- and if the recording quality were the only criterion here, it would "win" this Double Double hands down. It's a little on the bright side, but otherwise its sound quality is of a typical modern digital orchestral recording. Plus, there is some massive, sternum-rattling bass courtesy of the pedals of the organ in the third movement. The organ is present on the EMI but does not in any way reach the low frequency extremes with such power as it does on the Naxos. It is definitely worth the price of admission.

But other than the recording quality, one would correctly assume that Sir Adrian outdoes Mr. Bakels. But not by as much as one would expect. Yes, Boult's interpretation seems transparent to the score. This is probably because he is connected to the score in more ways than one -- he had been conducting this piece for many years at the time of this recording, and he had his personal friend, the composer himself, as a guide. I too, feel a connection to the score when listening to his version, and I think if one takes a liking to the music of Vaughan Williams, one should at least once listen to Boult conduct it. But to be honest, if someone asked me for a recommendation of a CD of this work and he or she had a stereo that could appreciate the difference in sound quality, I would probably suggest the Naxos. And not just because the recording quality is better. The Bournemouth version conducted by Bakels is very, very good. I found myself listening to this CD not only for reasons of analysis in preparation to write this column, but because it is a fine CD, period. I freely admit that I also found myself again and again going back to the third movement of the this CD just for the thrill of hearing the organ, and almost as often to the entire CD to revel in the glory that is audiophilia.

The Bakels/Bournemouth SO recording of Vaughan William's Seventh Symphony on Naxos is a more than competent interpretation, an excellent recording, and certainly a bargain. Although the Boult/London Philharmonic is a must-own if you want to hear this symphony straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak. The smart thing would be is to pick up both -- Sir Adrian Boult's for his fabulous interpretation, and the Kees Bakels on Naxos for its excellent sonics and more-than-half-decent performance by both conductor and orchestra at a bargain price. It's a win-win situation. But I'll bet that the Naxos spends more time in your CD player.

And yes, I plan to check out more Naxos CDs in the very near future.

KWN: I had hoped to pick up both versions at the same store, but the first shopping trip netted me only the Naxos version by Bakels. I had not played the Sinfonia antartica for some time, but it did not take me long in listening to the Naxos version to hear that this was a performance and recording that was highly charged with energy. Some of the climaxes in the first movement were quite emphatic, and the organ in the third movement was recorded more powerfully than I had ever remembered hearing it. My initial feeling was that for a bargain, I was really getting bang for the buck (and I only spent about six of them). The recording was fun to listen to, and I played it a few times at home, in the car, and at work before I finally tracked down the Boult, which set me back about ten bucks.

In some ways, the Boult almost sounded like a different work. Gone were the explosive climaxes, the organ was much more diminutive, and frankly, I found myself disappointed and surprised that the Boult version seemed so tame compared to the Bakels. But I found the piece to be such an old friend, and the recordings so different, that I just kept listening to them, over and over -- not really comparing them head to head, but rather trying to really get the full measure of each recording on its own terms before trying to measure each closely against the other in a more disciplined comparative listening session.

As I did this, I found the Bakels version sounding more and more mannered -- even annoying at times, as in the big climaxes in the first movement, where Bakels always seemed to be telegraphing his punches. I could virtually hear the orchestra taking a deep breath and "winding up" to deliver a telling blow. This effect might be sonically exciting, but musically, it is less than satisfying. The Boult performance, although outwardly tamer, began to sound more and more musically satisfying, more refined, and more likely to wear well over the long haul.

As I did more careful listening, I found that there were things to admire about both CDs. The Boult seemed to have more of an integrated conception both in sound and performance. One way to describe it is to say that under Boult, the piece sounds more like a symphony, whereas under Bakels, it sounds more like a series of tone poems. Even the sound quality contributed to this effect, with the Boult sounding wider but not as deep, while the Bakels tended to separate instruments more clearly, while at the same time conveying greater depth. The biggest sonic difference was in the organ underpinning in the third movement, with the organ sound being given a more prominent place in the mix in the Bakels version. Still, the Boult seemed a bit more atmospheric, more chilling -- and in a piece titled Sinfonia antartica, chilling is good. Overall, I simply found the Boult to be a more satisfying performance, and the sound, while not the best, eminently satisfying and appropriate.

Still, the Naxos recording is quite admirable, and a real bargain at its price. For some folks, the choice between the two might come down to the couplings. The Naxos features the 8th Symphony, a basically pastoral piece with an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink percussion section in the finale that is a lot of fun, while the Boult features the Aristophanic Suite from "The Wasps," a really enjoyable piece with its own moments of percussive propulsion. Given that the price of the Boult is not that much more than the Bakels, I would recommend the Boult more highly, especially to the first-time buyer who has not heard this symphony before. For my money, though, neither of these discs quite matches the Vernon Handley version on EMI Eminence (CD-EMX 2173, recorded in 1990 and released in 1991).
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Publication:Sensible Sound
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 1999
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