> Vaughan Williams EMI collection CZS5747822 [CH]: Classical Reviews- February 2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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BARGAIN OF THE MONTH


Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Toward the Unknown Region (1), Dona nobis pacem (2), Fantasia (quasi variazione) on the Old 104th Psalm Tune (3), Magnificat (4), Partita (5), Concerto Grosso (6), Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis (7), Romance in D flat (8), The Lark Ascending (9)
Sheila Armstrong (soprano) (2), Helen Watts (contralto) (4), John Carol Case (baritone) (2), Peter Katin (pianoforte) (3), Jean Pougnet (9), Christopher Hyde-Smith (flute) (4), Larry Adler (harmonica) (8), Ambrosian Singers (4), London Philharmonic Choir (1, 2), BBC Symphony Orchestra (8), London Philharmonic Orchestra (1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 9), Orchestra Nova of London (4), Philharmonia Orchestra (7)/Sir Adrian Boult (1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 9), Meredith Davies (4), Sir Malcolm Sargent (7, 8)
Recording dates: 20 Oct. 1952 (8), 21 Oct. 1952 (9), 5 June 1959 (7), 12 Feb. 1970 (3), 16 June 1970 (4), 16-18 April 1973 (1, 2), 10 & 15 Oct. 1975 (5, 6)
Locations: Kingsway Hall, London (1, 2), No. 1 Studio Abbey Road, London (3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9), St. Augustineís, Kilburn (7)
EMI CLASSICS CZS 5 74782 2 [2 CDs: 76.16 + 72.34] Superbudget


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Vaughan Williamsís music has been central to British musical life for as long as anyone alive can remember (for a few years, about a decade after his death, it seemed to be disappearing from view, but the upturn began before that happened). Yet have we really got away from the benign pastoral image, do we really know the composer in the round, have we tried to identify those works which have a universal appeal? Of the "big" companies, it is probably EMI which has done the most for British music in the first half of the 20th Century, yet the same company has also been the major culprit, for while other companies include their British music recordings among their international releases, EMI have kept them for the home market, thus perpetuating the image of this music as the aural equivalent of the Rural Arts and Crafts Shop. And here we are again; a double CD pack of which the first disc is wholly vocal, with notes (good ones) in English only and NO TEXTS (how many of the choral words are even native speakers really going to pick up?) is obviously not even trying to reach the export market.

Yet any foreignerís verdict would surely be of an uneven but universal art. If there is a common theme to this odd-looking mixture of mainly less well-known pieces (with one obvious exception) it is that of Vaughan Williams the ceaseless experimenter with new forms and instrumental combinations. Not, perhaps, in "Toward the Unknown Region", which is the sort of choral cantata in the Stanford-and-Parry vein which young composers were expected to write as their visiting card. The originality here lay in the choice of Walt Whitmanís unorthodox verse. Back in 1884 Stanford himself had created such a furore with his choice of lines from Whitmanís Abraham Lincoln Burial Ode for his "Elegiac Ode" that he never again ventured to set such "modern" verse for choral festival consumption. But, as principal conductor of the Leeds Festival in 1907, he was clearly sympathetic towards his young pupilís Whitman setting since he included it in the festival programme. By this time the public was ready for the poetry and Vaughan Williams became a national figure, leading to the even more successful presentation of his "Sea Symphony" at the next Leeds Festival in 1910.

"Dona nobis pacem" (1936) mingles liturgical Latin texts with selected poems (mainly by Whitman again) in a way that seems a blueprint for Benjamin Brittenís "War Requiem", while the "Magnificat" (1932) represents a harshly troubled, agnostic humanising of the Annunciation scene, its odd combination of contralto solo, flute solo, female chorus and small orchestra again a harbinger of much post-war music. The idea of a Fantasia for piano, chorus and orchestra (1949) had been tried by Beethoven and found Vaughan Williams blithely indifferent to the common wisdom that Beethovenís example only went to prove that the thing couldnít work.

Experimentation continues on the second CD. The Partita began life as a double string trio (in 1938) before reaching the present form in 1948. It is also notable for its "Homage to Henry Hall", the conductor of the BBC Dance Orchestra (how many of us grew up on his record of "Teddy-Bearsí Picnic"?). The Concerto Grosso (1950) was written for the Rural Music Schoolsí Association and provided a piece in which young hopefuls could join forces with experienced professionals, each with a part according to his own level. Placed after these two later string works, we are reminded that the Tallis Fantasia (1910) itself was of for its date quite unprecedented both in layout and in musical language, nor does the concentration on pure atmosphere to be found "The Lark Ascending" have obvious parallels in European violin and orchestra literature from 1914. In his last years Vaughan Williams became attracted by the possibilities of "unusual" instruments (as in the Tuba Concerto). The Romance for Harmonica (1951) was commissioned by Larry Adler, but what a stroke of genius to include a piano in the orchestra as well, and to exploit the harmonicaís bittersweet music-hall possibilities in a way that brings it close to the world of Poulenc.

So much for the experimentation angle; what of the actual value of the music? Well, the most European-sounding piece, the Partita, is maybe the least interesting. Michael Kennedyís notes hopefully tell us "there is a Stravinskyan flavour to the rhythmical devices"; what Iím afraid he means is that Vaughan Williams could assemble a well-wrought bit of "gebrauchsmusik" from thematic sowsí ears as competently as any Hindemith follower, and all Boultís conviction (he had conducted the first performance back in 1948) fails to persuade me there is more to it than that. The Concerto Grosso is distinctly more attractive, but the Old 104th impresses more than anything by its disarming oddity. In humanising the Annunciation scene, Vaughan Williams had a precedent in his master Stanfordís "spinning-wheel" G major setting, one of the best-loved pieces in the entire Anglican repertoire. Vaughan Williams unfortunately created a more centrally "European" piece of the gritty kind that we may admire but which it is difficult to love. The attractive qualities of the Romance and "The Lark" are well-known, and "Toward the Unknown Region" is a decent early piece, so that leaves two universal masterpieces, the "Tallis Fantasia", widely recognised as such, and "Dona nobis pacem", an impassioned and timeless cry for peace which speaks to all nations and all times. With the inclusion of the immortal line "For my enemy is dead, a man as divine as myself", the American poet and the British composer launched a message that should be emblazoned on the hearts of bomb-happy Presidents and their smarmy Prime Minister henchmen in all ages.

All Boult performances of Vaughan Williams are historical documents, but "Toward the Unknown Region" is late Boult and he seems uninterested in the proceedings during the early stages. The powerful second part finds him in better form, but choir and orchestra appear to be scattered around the room and do not coalesce into a convincing body. I am speaking from memory but, the compilers having made the choice to double-bill two musical knights in particular, would not Sargent have been better represented by his recording of this work than the Tallis Fantasia? Boult does what he can for the Old 104th and the late string works benefit enormously from the sense of burning personal commitment he gives them. No complaints about Daviesís performance of the "Magnificat", either. Sargentís "Tallis", taken on its own, is attractive enough, it babbles of green fields but I donít think the music meant anything more to him than that. If EMI still have rights over Westminster recordings (they certainly used to), then it would have been rather more imaginative to have given us the version Boult set down in Vienna, also in 1959. Perhaps because the conductor was having to teach the very responsive Vienna State Opera Orchestra how the music went, the result is more sharply etched than usual and emphasises the stark, Hardyesque tragedy latent in the work. Or they could have used the 1975 version which originally came out with the Partita and Concerto Grosso, where the same Hardyesque qualities are revisited as by a time-traveller, Boult evoking a distant (but not sentimentally ideal) world which he remembered but which had now passed away. This version also finds Boult vigilant to the end over the letter of the score: crescendos, accelerandos and the like occur exactly where they are written, there is no question of a vague expressiveness being applied haphazardly. Either of these performances contains insights which begin some way after Sargentís have ended.

The Adler recording is a historical document (it took place a month or so after the first British performance at the Proms), and technically it sounds rather like a film soundtrack. Only a day after a completely different team were in the same studio to record Jean Pougnet in "The Lark Ascending". Since Pougnet was a much-appreciated artist whose principal claim to discographic memory was his Delius Concerto with Beecham, it would be nice to hail an example of a foreigner showing us how our music has to go. Truth to tell, he is fairly prosaically literal, and Boult seems to feel that, under the circumstances, there is no point in trying to do more himself. Later he recorded the piece with Hugh Bean, a performance which inhabits a quite different poetic world in which the performers exchange their shared experiences.

"Dona nobis pacem" was recorded at the same sessions as "Toward the Unknown Region", so logically the recording would have the same defects. Frankly, after a few bars I was past noticing. This is one of those occasions when composer, conductor and performers all seem to have gelled into one to make a single, overwhelming statement. This is what great conducting is all about.

So where does that leave us? "Dona nobis" is essential and alone worth the price of the set (but, if it is the visionary Vaughan Williams youíre after, the same series has a coupling of this with "Sancta Civitas" under Hickox Ė CDC 7 54788 2). The rest helps to fill in our picture of a major European composer.

Christopher Howell


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