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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis [15.11]
Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 [11.35]
In the Fen Country [15.29]
Fantasia on Greensleeves [4.30]
Concerto Grosso [13.45]
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/James Judd
Recorded in June 2001 at the Michael Fowler Centre. Wellington, New Zealand
NAXOS 8.555867 [60.20]

This disc provides an opportunity for comparisons between the ‘pastoral’ music for which Vaughan Williams is famous and his more penetrating scores. He drew freely on folk songs, but in his orchestral music they become part of a more adventurous harmonic and melodic fabric that takes the listener well beyond bucolic ‘scene painting’ and become part of a more intense musical experience. Like his contemporary Elgar, he loved a good tune, yet VW was intensely self-critical and rarely left it at that. The Tallis Fantasia is subtle and complex, the Tallis theme being only the starting point for a series of transformations through which it passes in these moving variations; and, yes, there is a folk song nestling within them. Conversely the Greensleeves Fantasia preserves the simple charm of the original tune throughout. VW was constantly revising his own music and it is interesting to note that, though seemingly spontaneous, In the Fen Country – written in 1904 and given its first performance under Beecham in 1909 was constantly being changed right up to its final publication in 1949.

The improvisatory Norfolk Rhapsody makes use of three folk songs, The Captain’s Apprentice, A Bold Young Sailor and On Board a Ninety-Eight. It was the first of three such works, although the other two were later withdrawn. The folk songs are framed by lightly sketched impressions of the Norfolk landscape and feature telling passages for solo viola, cor anglais, bassoons and cellos. The Concerto Grosso, written for the 21st Anniversary of the Rural Music Schools Association, is yet another demonstration of VW’s restless versatility. On that occasion it was played by some 400 young string players in three categories of technical skill. Its baroque structure disguises a wickedly witty romp with a rousing march and a Burlesca Ostinata that starts entirely on open strings. VW was an active supporter of music for young people, as this example shows.

The orchestra takes most of this in its stride, though I would have liked a slower pace and a more lyrical sound in the Tallis Variations. The playing is accomplished, but decidedly ‘cool’ with a curious lack of response to what might be called the ‘inward landscape’ of these works. They are all quintessentially English in subtle ways that, perhaps, may not be so clearly focused in New Zealand. This could seem a capricious criticism unless comparisons are made with Beecham, Boult and other specialists in the music of Vaughan Williams. Nevertheless, it would be unlikely that all of them could be found on a single CD, especially at bargain price, and should stimulate interest in a voice that was both individual and influential in the new generation of 20th century British composers.

Roy Brewer



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