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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1873-1958)
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]
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This is an essential purchase for Ralph Vaughan Williams admirers as all but the Five Variants are rarities. Willow-Wood has not been heard in this form since 1909. The Sons of Light has never made it to CD. Thanks to the generosity of The Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust, these treasures are now available to all.

Willow-Wood is the major selling point, however it is a work unknown except to scholars and specialists. Set to a poem by Rossetti from A House of Life, it has much in common with the sound-world of Vaughan Williamsí other songs from the period. Perhaps one day it will be recorded together with the often heard songs, for it extends their range. The baritone sings unaccompanied for most part, his voice alone shaping phrases and adding colour. The female chorus vocalizes soundlessly, blending into the swirling strings. Like the other Rossetti settings it tells a tale full of dramatic imagery, though the actual text isnít particularly coherent. It evokes the Rossetti drawing where a pair of lovers meet in a dark, mysterious wood. But no matter, atmosphere is all here. Lines like "O ye, all ye who walk in Willow-Wood, that walk with hollow faces burning white" are so inherently dramatic, it hardly matters if they donít quite tie into narrative. Vaughan Williams simply sets them to music without worrying too much, writing phrases beautiful in themselves. Since the song comprises four sets, itís possible to avoid the question of consistency. Roderick Williams also sings with utter conviction. Perhaps the finest interpreter of Vaughan Williams, he brings grace and gravitas to the piece. This is no Wenlock Edge, by a long shot, but Vaughan Williams is tentatively exploring song cycle form.

Towards the Unknown Region is often cited as a kind of companion piece to A Sea Symphony. Here are the same long lines, stretching swathes of voice and strings. Itís popular repertoire in choral societies, for it gives a feel of the symphony without demanding such great resources. That glorious finale must be a joy to sing! Here, it is paired with Willow-Wood, aptly illustrating the composerís different direction, growing away from the conventional parlour songs of Stanford and Parry. Quite literally, the composer was daring to "walk out to the unknown region, where neither ground is for feet, nor any path to follow".

Surprisingly, there are similarities with The Voice out of the Whirlwind, written decades later. Godís voice comes from the Whirlwind to challenge Job. Here, though, the composerís setting is far more assured and sophisticated. He keeps the form of the biblical text, and imitates the whirlwind in turbulent circular figures. The vocal lines are sharply defined, the singers having to negotiate their lines crisply and with precise attack. Itís hard to believe that this piece started out as ballet music: perhaps modernist, expressionist ballet? It certainly has character. It makes a dramatic contrast to the melodic gentleness of Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus. The Voice in the Whirlwind is strikingly fresh and original and really should be better known.

Brass fanfares announce The Sons of Light, dissolving into an atmospheric display of "darkness and light". Set to words by Ursula Vaughan Williams, it tells the creation story and was meant to be performed by school choirs. It is certainly charming, and would bear repeat performance, though it is nowhere in the league of the other pieces on this recording.

Anne Ozorio

see also combined review from Tony Haywood and Christopher Howell



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