> ‘A Lark And A Cuckoo’ [GPJ]: Classical CD Reviews- Sept 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)

A Lark And A Cuckoo

The Lark Ascending (solo violin, David Nolan)
The Wasps – Aristophanic Suite (1. Overture; 2. Entr’acte; 3. March Past of the Kitchen Utensils; 4. Entr’acte; 5. Ballet and Final Tableau)
Prelude and Fugue in c minor (organ, David Bell)

Intermezzo from Fennimore and Gerda
On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring
Sleigh Ride
Irmelin Prelude
La Calinda

London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
Recorded in St.Augustine’s, Kilburn June 1985 and February 1978, and Henry Wood Hall, Southwark October 1977
EMI CLASSICS FOR PLEASURE 72435 75316 2 7 [77:27]

Vaughan Williams and Delius seems an obvious enough coupling - and the programme on this disc works very well - but it’s important to remember that the personalities of these two composers, and indeed their whole outlook on life, were diametrically opposed. Delius the atheist, disillusioned with most aspects of his life; Vaughan Williams, on the other hand, motivated by deep humanitarian feelings, and essentially a great optimist. The contrast between them is perfectly demonstrated by the two works that give this lovely disc its whimsical title – Vaughan Williams’ Lark and Delius’ Cuckoo. The latter is shot through with a contemplative nostalgia, while the former simply breathes with the wonder of nature.

Many people will be drawn to this issue by the inclusion of the ‘Wasps’ Suite. The overture is much recorded, but the delightful suite has been hard to come by for many years. Vaughan Williams composed the music in 1909, quite early in his slow burning career, for a staging of Aristophanes’ drama in Oxford. You might try a bit of an ‘innocent ear’ experiment with some of this music. I suggest playing the first Entr’acte and the March Past to a musical friend, simply asking them to name the composer (assuming they aren’t already familiar with it – the March Past is quite well-known). My hunch is that the names of Prokofiev, Kabalevsky, Bliss, or even Ravel will come up long before VW! Anyway, it’s charming, humorous and inventive music, and receives alert and sharply characterised performances from Handley and the LPO. Before that comes a workmanlike and musical version of The Lark Ascending. The soloist is the LPO’s leader at that time, David Nolan. Handley accompanies sensitively, allowing the poetry of the music to emerge, though, for my taste, Nolan misses some of the ethereal, faraway mystery of the piece; he’s undoubtedly a fine violinist, but this performance lacks magic as compared, say, with Louis Lane with Szell, or Hugh Bean with Boult. The Vaughan Williams section of the disc is completed by a rarity – the Prelude and Fugue in c minor, an interesting enough piece, if not one of the composer’s most obviously attractive.

Handley takes a refreshingly straightforward approach to Delius, allowing the music to flow naturally, and not overloading it with expression. The downside of this is that we miss some of the intensity of interpreters such as Barbirolli and Beecham; compare Handley and Barbirolli in, for example, the opening of On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring. There’s nothing wrong with Handley’s reading, but Barbirolli invests the music with an ineffable tenderness that is very special. Yet as the piece develops, Barbirolli seems to me to linger too much, so that the music never achieves a convincing sense of movement, and some of the string playing is rough and untidy. On the other hand, you do need wind soloists of the highest calibre in Delius, and the oboe playing cannot match Phillip Hill’s radiant tones for Barbirolli, or of course Leon Goossens’ equally wonderful playing on many of Beecham’s recordings. (By the way, why is it that David Nolan is credited by name for his solo, as is David Bell for the relatively unimportant organ part in the Vaughan Williams Prelude and Fugue, yet the demanding oboe solo in Fennimore and Gerda, for example, receives no mention? There is a weird kind of unwritten protocol about this, though some record companies are better than others). The jolly Sleigh Ride gets a lively performance, as does the famous La Calinda from Koanga, though both of these suffer from irritatingly persistent percussion, jingles in the first and tambourine in the second – Delius’s fault, not the performers. There is also a sensitive version of one of Delius’s loveliest miniatures, the prelude to Irmelin.

The quality of the recording is variable; the Lark and Wasps performances are the most recent, and they undoubtedly have the best sound. The least convincing is the Prelude and Fugue, which sounds very boxy and congested. Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable CD, which lovers of English music would do well to add to their collections. Handley is always worth hearing in this repertoire.

Gwyn Parry-Jones


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