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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Orchestral and choral music

Symphony No. 6 in E minor (1947)¹ - including original and revised scherzo*
A Song of Thanksgiving (1944)²
The Lark Ascending³ (1914)
London Symphony Orchestra¹
London Philharmonic Orchestra²³
Luton Choral Society/Luton Girls' Choir (conducted by Arthur Davies) ²
Jean Pougnet, violin³
Betty Dolemore, soprano²
Robert Speaight, narrator²
Harry Gibb, organ²
Sir Adrian Boult, conductor¹²³
Recorded in Studio 1, Abbey Road, London, 23rd-24th February 1949¹ (15th February 1950*), 18th December 1950², 21st October 1952³.
DUTTON CDBP 9703 [68.53]

This disc is one of Dutton's super-bargain "Conducts" series and in this case the pairing is one which many people, myself included, often think of as a quintessential combination - Boult and Vaughan Williams. It couples two performances, all be it superlative ones, of much recorded works with a relative rarity which, to these ears at least, is actually a (minor?) masterpiece.

The Sixth Symphony is notable, apart from the quality of the performance, in that it provides us with both the original and revised versions of the third, scherzo movement. The Lark Ascending is beautifully played by Jean Pougnet and this reading fully stands comparison, in artistic terms at least, with the best we have had since (e.g. Hugh Bean (also with Boult), Iona Brown (with Marriner and the ASMF) and Tasmin Little (with Andrew Davis)). The real discovery and worth the very modest price of the disc alone, even ignoring the excellent couplings, is A Song of Thanksgiving, a choral, orchestral piece which also features a narrative, mainly derived from the Old Testament book of Isaiah.

The Symphony was recorded five years before the rightly championed Decca (now Belart and Australian Eloquence) version with which it has much in common in terms of its full-blooded delivery, with some extra urgency added by generally faster tempi. In this recording, the scherzo revision makes little difference to timing but, as Michael Kennedy's excellent notes reveal, its main change was that it "inserted a new theme for brass at five points". However, I found the mysterious final movement the most memorable.

Michael Kennedy also describes The Lark Ascending as "one of Vaughan Williams's most original and ultimately flawless works" an indication, perhaps, of how familiarity might breed (has bred?), if not contempt, then complacency about some of our greatest music. Even without any personal input on their part, I would defy any violinist to play it not in a lyrical way. However, as mentioned above, no-one hearing this version could fail to grasp, at the very least, its sheer beauty and rapt contemplation of the nature it celebrates.

A Song of Thanksgiving, originally known as Thanksgiving for Victory, was composed in 1944, in response to a 1943 BBC commission for "a work to be performed when Hitler's Germany was defeated". It is scored for soprano, choir and full orchestra (plus organ and narrator) and ought, in a fair world, to be an absolute must for Last Night of the Proms (given the current hullabaloo especially!). However, in a world dominated by materialism and/or political correctness, some magnificent music has, perhaps, contributed to its own neglect by its very choice of texts. Vaughan Williams sets some beautiful verses from Chapters 60 and 61 of Isaiah, at once both visionary and comforting, including "beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning", "And they shall build the old wastes, they shall raise up the former desolations, and they shall repair the waste cities, the desolations of many generations", and "Violence shall no more be heard in thy land, wasting nor destruction within thy borders; but they shalt call thy walls Salvation, and thy gates Praise". After declamation by the narrator, these verses are reprised by the choir and accompanied by music very much in keeping with and of the same quality (i.e. very high) as that of the Fifth Symphony and Pilgrim's Progress. The final section sets Kipling in the Children's Song from Puck of Pook's Hill, quietly initiated by the girls' choir but building to a great climax. In my mind, although its context is entirely different, this does not suffer by comparison with other great Kipling settings by, for example, Grainger and Koechlin. The words speak the language of a benign, non-jingoistic patriotism and I reprint the last two verses below as an example:-


Teach us delight in simple things,

and mirth that has no bitter springs,
forgiveness free of evil done,
and love to all men 'neath the sun.

Land of our birth, our faith, our pride,
for whose dear sake our fathers died;
O Motherland, we pledge to thee
head, heart and hand through the years to be.

Needless to say, this is turned into a hymn of praise rather than anything resembling bombast. As evidenced by many of his other pieces as well, The Lark Ascending included, Vaughan Williams has few if any equals (Finzi?) in evoking what was and, I hope still is, the real spirit of England - a spirit defined by modesty, tolerance and vision. This disc reissues, at a very small price, some uniquely valuable recordings. Particularly if you have never heard A Song of Thanksgiving, it should be regarded as an essential purchase.

Neil Horner


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