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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Toward the Unknown Region (1907) [11’39]
Willow-Wood (1909) [13’55]
The Voice of the Whirlwind (1947) [5’15]
Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus (1939) [11’38]
The Sons of Light (1951) [19’24]
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones
rec. Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool. 20 Feb, 8 May 2005. DDD
NAXOS 8.557798 [61’51]

 

Whilst the world premiere recording of the cantata Willow-Wood is the obvious point of interest on this new Naxos disc, it’s fair to say that none of the works apart, perhaps, from Dives and Lazarus, are exactly common currency. Willow-Wood itself strikes me as quintessential VW; it is a setting for baritone solo, wordless female chorus and orchestra of a sonnet sequence by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Prior to the Naxos sessions it had not been heard since its first performance in 1909. Lewis Foreman’s typically illuminating liner-note tells us that the composer retained a fondness for it throughout his life, attempting to get the score republished just three years before his death. He also opines that it owes much of its impact to the orchestral writing and the atmosphere associated with the vocalise-like character of the women’s voices. He is quick to tell us that similar sounding music by Ravel and Debussy was still not being played regularly in Britain. Whatever the case, it is an effective setting that lovers of the composer’s music will want to hear. Dark modal harmonies and lush orchestral carpet underpin the richly rhetorical imagery of the words. The superb performance also helps. Roderick Williams’ splendidly resonant baritone complements the excellent chorus and impassioned conducting of David Lloyd-Jones.

The same could be said of Toward the Unknown Region. I retain a soft spot for this Whitman setting, having sung in a large-scale performance at college, and whilst it is fairly common among choral societies, it doesn’t have too many good modern recordings. It inhabits a similar sound-world to the Sea Symphony and if you love that work, you’ll love this. Whitman’s poetry was inspirational to a number of composers in the early years of the 20th Century, and VW clearly loved the words he was dealing with. The passage that starts ‘Then we burst forth, we float, In time and Space O soul’ still sends shivers down my spine, and it’s great to hear a crack professional choir and orchestra giving it their all, with Lloyd-Jones fully alive to the all-important atmosphere at the start and thrusting momentum as things hot up.

The glorious Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus seems, like The Lark Ascending, to exemplify VW’s idealised picture of a countryside battling with creeping industrialisation. I grew up with Marriner’s ASMF version on the old Argo label and while there is much competition here, Lloyd-Jones is as sensitive as any to the beauties of the piece without any over-sentimentalising.

The 1951 choral cantata The Sons of Light, with words by the composer’s future wife Ursula, is another rarity, though it did make it onto LP. It is certainly new to me, but very enjoyable in all the right ways. Indeed, Lewis Foreman’s theory is that it has been unduly neglected because of its original commission from the Schools Music Association and an unfair connotation as a ‘children’s piece’. There is no way VW makes any concessions to kids’ abilities and the piece is full of dazzlingly characteristic touches. I particularly like the brass fanfares and march sections, rumbustious and invigorating, and at one point detected echoes of Holst’s Hymn of Jesus (itself dedicated to VW) as well as the composer’s own masterpiece Job in the central scherzo ‘Song of the Zodiac’.

Speaking of Job, the last little rarity here is The Voice of the Whirlwind, a short choral motet that sets words from the book of Job and recycles music from the masque, specifically the ‘Galliard of the Sons of the Morning’ in scene viii. It’s an effective setting given that the words, as Foreman points out, are set to music intended as a ballet.

This is a hugely enjoyable release, intelligently programmed and with high production values. Singing, playing and conducting could hardly be better and given the price and the fact that none but the staunchest aficionados will do any duplicating, is sure to be a success.

Tony Haywood

Christopher Howell has also listened to this disc:

It can be an interesting pastime to browse periodically through the work-lists of favourite composers, just to see what is left of potential importance that you don’t know. Those who number Vaughan Williams among their favourites have seen the major gaps filled one by one over the years, but every now and then their eyes will have lighted upon an early cantata for baritone, female chorus and strings, “Willow-Wood”. At last, those who actually have the power to perform and record such things have noticed the gap too and, amid a certain publicity, this 14-minute work, unheard since its first performances in 1903 (of the voice and piano version) and 1909 (of the fully-scored version performed here), has joined the RVW discography. To tell the truth, if you don’t insist on the publicity surrounding a rediscovered work for full orchestra there are quite a few odds and ends, unison songs, part-songs and the like, which seem to be still unrecorded, but this appears to be the last big gap ... but what about “Folk-Songs of the Four Seasons” for women’s chorus and orchestra (1950), and what on earth is the “Suite for Pipes” (1947)?

It is clear that by 1903 RVW was already a thoroughly professional composer. Certain awkwardnesses (if I may use this word in the plural) which appeared in his later music and which have sometimes been adduced as proof that he was not a proper professional, were actually traits of his own personality which he gradually learnt to express more fully, and are of course intentional. The music moves surely to and from climaxes, the orchestration is rich but not heavy with a vaguely French sound to it, the vocal line must be grateful to sing, the choral entries are perfectly timed.

I can never forget the Italian critic who, after a rare outing of the “Sea Symphony” in Milan - its only one, for all I know -  dismissed it as “second-hand film music”. It’s a pity he didn’t look at the date of the score, since film soundtracks were as yet in the future in 1910. And yet, his reaction does point to a defect in the early, Pre-Raphaelite Vaughan Williams which he was only beginning to address with the Sea Symphony. In common with many products of the Stanford-and-Parry RCM (Walford Davies, for example), he could take a fine poem – some beautiful sonnets from Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “The House of Life” in this case – find apt and attractive vocal phrases with which to illustrate it line by line, then bind the whole together with an expert symphonic mesh, creating a work which holds the attention, passes the time agreeably, but leaves no particular memory behind it. Just as films of famous books are wont to spend millions on a product which lacks the emotional force you can experience by reading a paperback copy of the original book at home, here getting on for a hundred musicians have been brought together only to dissipate the magical intensity of lines which are already the purest music in themselves, beginning thus:

I sat with Love upon a woodside well,

Leaning across the water, I and he;

Nor ever did he speak nor looked at me,

But touched his lute wherein was audible

The certain secret thing he had to tell.

In another Rossetti setting, “Silent Noon” from “The House of Life” (also 1903), Vaughan Williams showed that it is possible to create a musical setting of a great poem which has an independent vitality of its own, on the same exalted plane as the poem itself. Here, I fear he has not quite succeeded. But he passes the time very pleasantly for us and a concert program with this and Debussy’s “La demoiselle élue” in the first half and, say, Mahler 1 in the second, would throw an interesting slant on turn-of-the-century art around Europe.

“Toward the Unknown Region” also provides, here, a warmly sumptuous experience. I was a bit disconcerted. I had not heard the piece for some time but I did not remember it as being so comfortably at odds with Whitman’s strange words. Out came the Boult recording and all was as I remembered it; the sense of blind groping, fearful even to move ahead at “No map there, nor guide”, and the touch of longed-for human warmth at “Nor face with blooming flesh”. Choral diction and colour were better in those days, too, but above all this is real conducting, not afraid to adjust the tempi microscopically but continually to give full character to each phrase rather than sail blandly through; memory tells me that the Sargent recording was better still. So maybe there is more to be said on “Willow-Wood”, too?

When Vaughan Williams rid himself of the luxuriant Pre-Raphaelite symbolism of his youth and embraced a Hardy-like unvarnished truthfulness, he found the way to express the vision that was in him. In short he became a great composer. This disc has two brief examples from his finest period. “The Voice out of the Whirlwind” is actually a reworking of a passage from his great ballet “Job”; as Lewis Foreman says in his notes, the words fit so well that it is difficult to believe RVW didn’t have them in mind from the start. This piece goes with considerable vitality.

Though never as highly rated as the “Tallis Fantasia”, I always loved the “Dives and Lazarus” variations in the Barbirolli version I had on LP as part of the “other side” of Rubbra 5, also under Barbirolli. The flat, featureless performance here left me wondering why I (or anybody else) should have found it worth bothering with at all. So out came Barbirolli and I was caught in its spell as ever. There’s more variety of expression and shading in the first two bars than in the whole of the present performance.

Another “coup” of this disc is the first CD recording of “The Sons of Light”. This work dates from the beginning of RVW’s last period, when he set aside his prophet-like stance and experimented restlessly with new sounds. Though in the last resort these works are more in the nature of an interesting postscript to a great career, there is no denying the coursing energy and phenomenal range of colour to be found in this cantata, which certainly deserves to be better-known. The performance here is an effective one. Turning back to the one (so far as I know) previous recording, part of Lyrita’s buried treasure and conducted by Sir David Willcocks, there is nonetheless a greater sense of urgency. This stems not so much from faster tempi, since the overall timings are practically identical though Willcocks has a greater range of tempi within this framework, as of clearer choral diction and colouring. Willcocks was, of course, one of the greatest British choral trainers of his day, and here he has his own two choirs: The Bach Choir and that of the RCM. And it shows, in the characterisation of the crab, and of the “mailed scorpion”, just to give two examples. The downside of great choral trainers is often that they are hopeless with orchestras, but this was never a problem with Willcocks, who got a sizzling response from the LPO. In short, the present performance - recorded with more depth but slightly less presence - will do, but the Lyrita should be reissued, together with its overwhelming coupling of Parry’s magnificent “Ode on the Nativity”.

I’m sorry to give this disc only a modified recommendation, but as I say, for the unrecorded/unavailable works it is a reasonable guide. The booklet notes on the RLPO, incidentally, tell us that “subsequent incumbents [following Rignold] have included Efrem Kurtz and John Pritchard, Walter Weller, David Atherton, Marek Janowski and Libor Pešek ... followed by Petr Altrichter and Gerard Schwarz ...”. It would be nice to think that Sir Charles Groves’s sterling work - and many fine recordings - with the orchestra from 1963 to 1977 was still remembered, but human gratitude was ever thus.

Christopher Howell

 

 



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