This is by no means entirely Vaughan Williams. Look
at the other composers represented: Butterworth, Ireland, Bax, Gurney,
Warlock, Elgar, Finzi. Of that group I would only relate Butterworth
and Finzi to Vaughan Williams although I know that Bax and Vaughan Williams
dedicated works to each other.
This bargain box gathers together various RVW CDs from
EMI’s mid-price ‘British Composers’ series and offers them shrink-wrapped
in a fragile light-card box. The price is super-bargain. This must be
a way of clearing slowly moving stock. Nothing wrong with that.
Of the nine CDs about seven of them are RVW and most
of these feature choral or vocal music - mostly with orchestra. You
should check the contents of the box because when I opened mine I found
that CD5 contained the RVW Mass and various a capella pieces
by Finzi and Bax rather than Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs,
Finzi’s Dies Natalis and Holst’s A Choral Fantasia.
The RVW performances included come from the golden
age of the RVW revival largely in the three years either side of 1972
- centenary year. Most of them are analogue and many are conducted by
Sir David Willcocks. This set is almost but not quite the equivalent
of that RVW LP box that for years complemented the EMI Boult RVW nine
symphonies. On the one hand there was the box of the symphonies which
was SLS 822 and on the other there was the predominantly Willcocks/Boult
collection of the choral/orchestral works: SLS 5082.
So many of the recordings are world premieres. While
Dona had been pipped at the post by Abravanel's fine version
(Vanguard) and Toward the Unknown Region by Sargent (EMI) recordings
of the Fantasia on the Old 104th, the Magnificat and many
of the others were firsts on commercial disc.
I was brought up on the Westbrook version of An
Oxford Elegy. All lovers of the English language should flock to
this disc. Such a potent combination - Westbrook's voice and the sweet
nostalgic music of Vaughan Williams. Flos Campi is one of RVW’s
most sheerly beautiful, even sensuous, pieces. I love this version but
hope that BMG will at some stage issue the Frederick Riddle version
on CD. It sued to be on an RCA LP with the suite for viola and orchestra.
Toward the Unknown Region is early RVW and establishes
his prolonged affair with the poetry of Walt Whitman; as close and sustained
as Finzi's with Hardy’s poetry. The sound securely distinguishes the
various sumptuously rounded strands of serenity and ecstasy. Finzi surely
drank deep of this music for it can be heard in Ode to St Cecilia
and In Terra Pax. Despite the analogue hiss this superbly
sung and recorded version has not been bettered.
Boult's has the white-toned Sheila Armstrong, The London
Philharmonic Choir puts British reserve aside for the savagery of "Beat!
Beat! Drums …" achieving an effect not that far removed from the
chaotic rammy of Bliss’s The City Arming from Morning Heroes(Royal
Liverpool Phil Choir). This is a much more effective image of apocalyptic
violence than Franz Schmidt's contemporary Book of the Seven Seals
and is more emotionally expressive than Eugene Goossens’ The
Apocalypse. John Carol Case, who in five years, was to find his
vibrato difficult to subdue (Lyrita Recorded Edition, Finzi Let us
Garlands Bring) is here controlled and rounded in tone. I think
William Christensen on the Abravanel recording (Vanguard) has more humanity
and emotional baggage. The singing of the words "… the hands of
the sisters: death and night" is very touching. Boult handles the
Dirge for Two Veterans with implacable funereal nobility and
it remains intriguing to compare his friend Holst’s setting of the same
The Fantasia has a crashingly rebellious solo
piano part despatched with darkling concentration by Peter Katin who,
in a handful of years time, was to record Finzi's similarly unrepentantly
gawky Grand Fantasia and Toccata for Lyrita. I recall the original
EMI LP which had Boult's version of the RVW Ninth Symphony as the coupling.
The Fantasia is an oddball work yet full of interest. It is a
late piece echoing with strange sonorities and vocal writing from the
Five Herbert Songs - Let all the world … in particular.
The Magnificat introduces Meredith Davies as
conductor. Here the linkages are with the Sinfonia Antartica notably
in the succulently rounded Gallic flute playing of Christopher Hyde-Smith.
The Ambrosian Singers remind us of the choral writing in An Oxford
Elegy and especially in Flos Campi.
Three string works take up the first ten tracks of
CD2. The Partita is not reckoned as prime RVW - it tends to coldness
- but the darting bustle of the scherzo ostinato is likeable
in a disconcertingly Britten-like way. The Concerto Grosso is
a much more emotional piece where humanity smiles warmly. This is affecting
and instantly accessible but it is not the equal of the electrically
rapturous Del Mar Bournemouth recording (EMI). Boult keeps a lid on
the emotionalism which the earlier recording happily sheds to loveable
and exciting effect.
Sargent's Tallis Fantasia is now approaching
65 years old. However it sounds fine and while it lacks Barbirolli's
rapt intensity and ecstatic concentration it is no mean performance
… if slightly hurried.
The Romance gives us Larry Adler in experimental
form, his harmonica wailing and ululating. It is almost as if he was
serenading Scott's Antarctic penguins. It is an engaging fantasy of
a piece - perhaps rather cold but full of strangeness. The recording
now shows its age. Another Romance - this time for violin and
orchestra - ends the CD.
The late 1960s saw an eruption of recording activity
as 1972 (RVW’s centenary year) hove in sight. Five Tudor Portraits
at last secured its recording premiere. It is difficult to imagine
it being done any better although I concede that Elizabeth Bainbridge
is far too matronly and tends to squall. John Carol Case is in strong
voice. He is delectable in the sweetly light ballad My Pretty Bess.
Listen to his meshing with the chorus in the last two minutes of the
ballad. It is still something of a shock to encounter the direct Orff
quotation in the Burlesca. However the fulcrum of the work is
the Romanza (a favourite RVW term) Jane Scroop - Her Lament
for Philip Sparrow. This is sensuous, touching, exotic - a cortège
of symphonic gravity. There is some slight choral scrappiness in the
faster tongue-twisting passages but exuberance exonerates and exalts
The Benedicite makes a joyfully euphoric impression
and Heather Harper is wondrously clear and splendidly ripe of tone.
The Dives and Lazarus Variants are a noble work extremely aptly
turned by the Jacques Orchestra.
John Barrow contributes his sweetly cavernous baritone
to the Christmas Carol Fantasia. The hit of the work is certainly
On Christmas Night (third movement). A more ambitious and probing
seasonal work is the late Hodie termed A Christmas Cantata.
This is another anthology work. The recorded balance is miraculously
right-feeling in the pipe organ accompanied choral narration - Now
the birth of Jesus Christ. This is a work that should be done far
more often as should that other Christmas cantata: Cyril Rootham's Milton-based
Ode on the Morning of Christ's Nativity. The highlights of Hodie
are Janet Baker's It was the winter wild (Milton), John Shirley-Quirk's
baritone in the setting of Hardy's Oxen, kin with the Five
Mystical Songs, the Herbert setting of Pastoral (again Shirley-Quirk),
Bright Portals of the Sky (directly referenced to the film music
for ‘Scott of the Antarctic’ and indeed to Grace Williams' scena Fairest
of Stars) and regally exhilarating in Milton's Ring Out ye crystal
spheres. The clamour of bells, large and small, and of celebration
prepare any audience to go out glowing into the snowy night and home.
There are three CDs of English song: the first with
orchestra; the second and third with piano alone. In all three cases
the music is only partly by Vaughan Williams. Robert Tear (the head-line
British tenor for many years) is dark-toned and faintly nasal. The orchestral
contribution is frankly superb but my preference would be for the lighter-hued
voice of Gerald English (Unicorn n.l.a. but you may be able to track
it down). In any event Tear’s is a lovely performance and Bredon
Hill with its serene shimmer has not been done better. The Songs
of Travel are rooted back into Parry. The orchestrations (three)
are by RVW and the rest by Roy Douglas. Thomas Allen shows a very clean
pair of heels to Robert Tear managing a lovely honeyed lightness. "I
have trod the upward and the downward slope" neatly echoes the
decay of the tramping theme of "The Vagabond" giving a rounded
sense to the cycle.
Tear returns for the Elgar songs which are pretty shards
but no more. Perhaps Was it some golden star rises transiently
above such trivia. These are light ballads with nothing of the symphonic
or scena quality of some Elgar songs. The Two Songs Op. 60 have the
orchestral flourish of the Second Symphony. Best of all however is the
Butterworth song cycle Love Blows as the wind blows. Tear is
good in this although he does not trounce Brian Rayner Cook's 1972 broadcast
in the BBC's ‘England’s Green and Pleasant Land’ series; granted though
that the BBC recording was with string quartet. Few will be able to
resist the soft-breathed accompaniment and nostalgic words of Coming
up from Richmond. The hairs on the back of my neck raise even now
at the word "I met a ghost today". This is a perfect little
song matched only by Wenlock Edge.
The two CD set has Anthony Rolfe Johnson and David
Willison; the latter best known as Benjamin Luxon's accompanist. Here
the tenor is as dark-tinged as Tear, but so much sweeter, less acidulous,
keyed more effectively into the honey and eschewing the vinegar. Words
are not provided for any of these songs. Of course you have the words
of Songs of Travel on the Tear disc but that is the only 'overlap'.
The RVW Mass is cleanly and coldly sung as befits its
Medievalist origins. The Finzi and Bax pieces are good to have in such
transparently recorded versions. The Bax in particular could have benefited
from a larger choir and a more delirious and ecstatic, less English
approach. Those final coruscating ‘alleluias’ should go with more colour
The notes are strong contributions laced with fascination
and information by Michael Kennedy.