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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910 rev.1913, 1919) [15:13]; Norfolk Rhapsody no.1 (1906 rev.1914) [11:42]; In the Fen Country (1904 rev.1905, 1907, 1935) [15:35]; Fantasia on Greensleeves (arr. Ralph Greaves [1934] from the opera Sir John in Love [1928]) [04:36]; Concerto Grosso (1950) [13:41]
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/James Judd
Recorded at the Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, New Zealand, 28-30 June 2001
SACD, heard on CD equipment.
NAXOS 6.110053 [60:48]


James Judd is undoubtedly a very skilful conductor, obtaining a disciplined response from the New Zealand players with clear textures and finely drawn melodic lines. In the case of the Bridge disc by this combination I was not able to subscribe wholeheartedly to the enthusiasm expressed by many of my colleagues, since I felt that a certain static quality to the performances showed the music in a less effective light than those of a fairly similar programme under Sir Charles Groves. Unfortunately, this time too I have to evoke another glorious name from the past – that of Sir Adrian Boult.

Comparisons of their versions of "Greensleeves" are all the more instructive when their approaches are basically similar, eschewing the luscious, effusive manner of Barbirolli. Boult’s 1959 Vienna recording (on Westminster) was already a stark, Hardy-like meditation, while his final thoughts (EMI, pub.1971) distilled the essence of timeless simplicity. Judd’s version adopts a similar stance, yet one quickly becomes aware that more is happening under the surface with Boult – more sharply-etched movement of the inner parts, for example. The dividing-line between masterly understatement and no statement at all is a thin one, but I fear these two performances illustrate it.

Though Judd’s overall timing in the Tallis Fantasia is swifter than Boult’s final version (16:30, EMI pub.1976; the timing is not really a question of old age since he took 16:14 in 1959), at the beginning Judd is slower, a little fidgety compared with the inspired simplicity with which Boult sets the wheels turning. Judd’s more passionate approach in the central part has its attractions but Boult builds the piece up more surely, ensuring that ONE climax of all caps the others – the passage marked "largamente" three bars before letter S. Furthermore, I feel the engineers, presumably with the conductor’s approval, have exaggerated in one respect. In a "note to the conductor", Vaughan Williams specified that the second orchestra "should, if possible, be placed apart from the First orchestra". But that doesn’t mean they have to be carted off to Australia! When I first heard this very distant sound I thought it wonderfully magical, but later on it seemed really too much of a good thing; one’s ears strain to hear harmony changes, and not just in passages marked pianissimo. Much of the contrast should come from the fact that the second orchestra’s strings are muted on many occasions, and I feel that the Boult 1976 recording found a more natural solution. Mind you, I’ve heard this on normal CD equipment – the effect might be out of this world if with SACD you hear the second orchestra drifting in from the back of the room.

I don’t have Boult versions of the Norfolk Rhapsody or In the Fen Country to hand and Judd certainly shows an appreciation of Vaughan Williams’s often Ravelian colouring as well as plenty of atmosphere and (later on) vitality. But he does not succeed in convincing me that the undeniable attractions of these pieces are not too long-drawn for their own good; again, there seems to be something static at the heart of these performances.

But the real shock comes with the Concerto Grosso, over which Boult takes almost four minutes more. The individual timings are as follows:

CONCERTO GROSSO
  I II III IV V
Boult 02:33 03:06 04:01 02:47 05:00
Judd 01:57 02:36 03:34 01:51 03:42

The difference is the more remarkable given that the timings shown on the Naxos disc, which I have reproduced above, are actually all wrong; in every case Judd takes between 3 and 10 seconds less than the timing shown.

Judd interprets the first movement, the Intrada, as a neo-Baroque piece, with detached bowing and a lively sense of forward movement. Boult notes that it is also marked Largo and is not only very broad but also has the strings playing with a smooth, soaring legato which to my ears is infinitely more moving. Another notable difference comes in the fourth movement. It is entitled "Scherzo" and Judd makes a very lively affair of it. But Vaughan Williams also added (Allegro: tempo di valse), something the Naxos booklet doesn’t tell us, and, judged as a waltz even Boult is pretty swift while Judd gives no notion of the waltz at all. In any case, Boult’s slower pace is infinitely more "knowing" than Judd’s brisk efficiency. And indeed, throughout, quite apart from the matter of tempi, it is Boult who makes the music speak more eloquently. This is rather important when this is a VW piece without a great deal to say for itself anyway.

So, as with Judd’s Bridge disc, I fear that if you go for this cheap and in many ways good alternative, you are not going to hear the music in its very finest light.

Christopher Howell

 



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