This is one of a small treasury of major Vaughan Williams tributes
from the record companies in 2008 - the year that sees half a
century since the composer’s death. Those tributes include the
reissue at bargain price of discs that have had a long tenure
in the catalogue. We have seen only the merest trickle of recording
premieres. Chandos have been heroes in this respect with the film
music handsomely done as well as The First Nowell and The
Poisoned Kiss. How much longer before we see first recordings
of the Folk Songs of the Four Seasons, the tone poem The Solent, the complete
sequence of all three Norfolk Rhapsodies and a realisation
of the unfinished Cello Concerto?
In one sense this
set is really up against it. Competition from the EMI Classics'
Collectors Edition is formidable. After all EMI is offering
for the price of about four full price discs 30 CDs containing
a very large part of RVW's output: all the symphonies, concertos
and orchestral pieces, most of the operas, the folksongs, many
of the major choral works and the chamber music. Best not to
regard that EMI set as competition - there is some overlap but
best view it as complementary to this one. After all many of
the hymns on the Hyperion plus the Bunyan Sequence and
The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains are unique
to this set.
Even where there
is overlap there are distinctive features with Hyperion and
these have a real pull.
The Hyperion is
ideally documented with each disc in its own case and each having
a booklet with every single sung word printed. Contrast the
EMI set with its wallet-style economy, stiff card envelopes
and lack of texts. The first CD – here CDS44321 - launched what
became the Hyperion-Matthew Best RVW project. That disc, in
one sense, played safe, concentrating on a new excellence in
familiar works. This Best and his players and singers achieved.
The first Hyperion
disc offers a Serenade to Music taken by a team of then
young and debutante singers - a team for the nineteen-nineties
as Boult's early 1970s team was a team of the late 1960s and
1970s. The Hyperion has the edge over the analogue EMI in transparency
of the solo voices. This Serenade to Music is memorable
for many reasons including Maciej Rakowski’s tremulously sweet
violin. I have recently had cause to praise Thomas Allen for
his way with the Coates songs on Dutton.
He is no less spine-tingling in these wonderful Mystical
Songs and he achieves this against the competition of John
Shirley-Quirk from the 1970s. That notable ecstasy is attained
and sustained in this version - Rise Heart indeed! There
is a good-hearted triumph that rings through this fine recording;
it is not to be missed. The Christmas Carol Fantasia also
benefits from Tomas Allen's golden presence.
Finally on that
first disc comes a voluptuous and close-quarters Flos Campi
in which Nobuko Imai's throaty viola has much the same quickening
that I hear in Maciej Rakowski's violin in the Serenade. Did
any other composer use vocalising voices so often, over the
whole of a career and for such diverse purposes, I wonder?
With the exception
of the last disc in this set every other CD can be bought separately
at full price. That last discs (here phoenixed under CDS44324)
has been deleted. It starts with A Song of Thanksgiving which
RVW was asked to write in anticipation of victory in the second
world war. It was to be premiered within days of VE Day.
The speaker here is none other than John Gielgud - Hyperion
were always well connected. He also took the role of Christian
and Faithful in the Bunyan sequence recorded for the first time
ever on CDS 44323. Thanksgiving has the burning crusading
quality of those days yet one looks for the anger in vain. This
is perhaps an unrealistic expectation of a work written with
celebration as its goal. This reminds us again of RVW's range
of inventive resource. The use of orator, the use of vocalising
choir, the embracing of radio as a medium, the lifelong absorption
in Bunyan – all are reflected in this cross-section of works.
The devotional Three
Choral Hymns continue the theme of celebration and do so
very effectively as does the Hundredth Psalm. The second
of the three hymns recalls the Plainchant origins of the unaccompanied
The Hymns and
A Song of Thanksgiving prompt other thoughts. The composer
was an avowed atheist yet wrote music that was a channel for
praise. Their effect seems no less sincere for all that. A
Song of Thanksgiving is a work for the moment even if its
redolence remains powerful to this day. One might bracket it
with other works of wartime celebration which we might feel
less comfortable with - for example there are Soviet works of
victorious celebration yet they seem consigned to oblivion.
The doors should be opened to this genre for we may have discoveries
to make beyond the shores of the British Isles.
The lambent Magnificat
is given a new suffusion of light in this warmly radiant
performance and recording. It combines, mystery, stained glass
and motes of dust caught in shafts of light amid darkness. It
is a most magical work and in this performance must be heard.
of the Delectable Mountains is an operatic scena - a key
and blessed episode in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. In
Tolkien terms it represents a Rivendell or Lothlorien episode
in the journey. The performance is well night perfect although
I did wonder about how relentlessly close the recording was.
This is often characteristic of the balance selected across
all four discs - all four hours and 41 minutes. Of undiluted
distinction is the role of Bryn Terfel as Pilgrim in freshest
of voice. His contribution is full of every nuance of character
and word colour achieved before celebrity and stardom had turned
heads and talent.
There is a remarkable
echo of the Sixth Symphony in the calming core of the 100th
Psalm which also links with Sheep May Safely Graze
Thomas Allen, returns
this time Judith Howarth, for Dona Nobis Pacem. The choir
distinguish themselves with smouldering intensity and an Old
Testament savagery arising naturally from the Whitman words.
RVW was not above learning from Arthur Bliss's City Arming
movement in Morning Heroes. It's a remarkably frank
echo of the Bliss. The wild tumult is not allowed to blur the
definition of the words - a good balance of fury and precision.
I still retain my affection for alternative versions from William
Metcalf for Maurice Abravanel (Vanguard)
and John Carol Case for Boult (EMI
Classics) but this is a most beautifully imagined and sung
version. Its core is to be heard in Reconciliation and
Dirge for Two Veterans (the latter also wonderfully done
with minimal forces). In RVW's case we get a sturdy, grim yet
yielding and totally unorthodox death march interspersed with
episodes such as the “immense and silent moon” with its milky
white light illuminating the double grave. The great drums are
marvellously rendered without flinch. This is an extremely fine
performance. Vaughan Williams' invocation to peace and warning
against war may not have changed worlds. The second world war
was driven by hotter fires of hatred and ambition than any piece
of music could hold back. However the music still speaks as
a channel for temperate relationships between peoples. Its sincere
goal is towards peace. It spoke in that way through the Cold
War and continues in our own uncertain times.
The Four Hymns
are recorded for the first time in their string orchestra
apparel. The schema and mood-style suggests a similar ambition
as the Five Mystical Songs. Again the composer juxtaposes
voice and solo viola - however rather than Flos Campi where
the vocal element is wordless, the ‘choir’ here is solo voice
and viola. Later still in his neglected Housman cycle solo voice
was to be joined by solo violin in Along the Field to
contrast with the large chamber ensemble for On Wenlock Edge.
The Four Hymns will appeal to anyone who is captivated
by the Mystical Songs but it has to be admitted that
the level of inspiration is not as exalted.
It is not the first
time that Dona Nobis Pacem and Toward the Unknown
Region have been harnessed on the same disc. Many among
the older readers will remember Boult's LP recording of Dona
where the ‘disc-mate’ was Toward the Unknown Region.
This version shows great attention to the detail of the words.
Rather like the Magnificat and the Mystical Songs
Best bids fair to be the finest in the catalogue. The work
here has a fascinating almost Straussian voluptuousness which
I do not recall hearing before. It made me think of another
work I would not normally have considered had any parallels
and that is Delius's A Mass of Life. I must say I found
this work rather matte and dull in other recordings; not so
mysticism comes more magical and joyous candour. Try the sound
of trumpets and tambourines for O Clap Your Hands - a
no-holds-barred performance. Lastly another rarity in Lord
Thou Hast Been Our Refuge, here sung by Thomas Allen - a
very welcome fixture in this set – with the Corydon Singers
from writing the notes for all four discs Christopher palmer
created The Bunyan Sequence out of the music RVW wrote
for a 1942 BBC radio production. He did similar service
for the Walton films (Chandos) and indeed for Prokofiev's film
scores. In the 1940s Apollyon would surely have been seen as
an analogue for the men strutting in dark uniforms around Berlin.
It is a powerful score with parts very familiar from The
Pilgrim's Progress (1951).
Pasco is the very
model of restraint and clear-headed speech. He takes the role
of Evangelist and also of a miscellany of other characters.
His approach can be compared with the stagey Gielgud. Once one
can get over Gielgud's ‘luvviness’ there is much here to delight.
Also there is a pleasure in recognition of music that takes
a sometimes very different curvature from that described the
1951 Morality ‘in the similitude of a dream’ now to be heard
on EMI (in that big set) and Chandos. The Gate opens
with music which has the flaming tongues redolent of the Four
Riders music in Schmidt's Book of the Seven Seals
and more directly in RVW's own Fourth Symphony. There is some
careful distancing in this particular recording: notable are
the distant trumpet calls in The Way (tr. 4).
Then we come to
the encounter with Apollyon - the foul fiend. Here the music
is familiar for it was used with similar effect in the Morality;
RVW did not want it called an ‘opera’. It isplayed here with
furious abandon and once again with virtuoso precision. Pasco
takes on the role of Apollyon – and balefully intoning “Here
will I spill thy soul” the menace is almost tangible in the
hoarse and rough-cutting edge he imparts to his voice.
Vanity Fair is
more rompingly turbulent than seductive but Vaughan Williams
soon achieves that quality with string quartet and harp in the
most diaphanous of colours and sounds. That said, the music
also has a serene quality which does not differentiate from
earthly bliss as much as he might have wanted. With music like
this how did Pilgrim resist. We might be forgiven at this point
for wondering whether Pilgrim was a dull dog even if his judgement
was unerring. The music has that sensuous yield we hear in Flos
Campi - where the voluptuous and the devotional blend delightfully.
For The Trial and the music for Lord Hategood we hear
fast mechanical music that sounds uncannily like Shostakovich
in spitting vituperation.
I do wish some enterprising
person would issue the 1942 recording of the radio adaptation.
While they are at it, if it survives, why not also the broadcast
of The Mayor of Casterbridge in the late 1950s which
included RVW’s incidental music.
Across these four
discs there is so much in the way of nexus and interconnection.
One major aspect is the presence on CDS44324 of The Shepherds
of the Delectable Mountains. This can be contrasted with
The Delectable Mountains episode in the Bunyan Sequence.
I had initially
wondered if the set was nothing more than the individual issues
swept off the warehouse shelving into this new card slip-case.
Not a bit of it. Each booklet and insert, while following the
original issue, is newly numbered and printed. Each bears a
CDS (not CDA) number on the spine and they are sequentially
The notes for this
series are in English only. They are distinguished efforts too
- for all four discs - being amongst the last writing assignments
completed by Christopher Palmer.
This is as impressive
and noteworthy a set as one could ask. It cuts a juicy swathe
through the RVW catalogue of vocal works. In doing so it mixes
the great with enjoyable ephemera and the Bunyan-centred with
the godly and grand.
Short of waiting
on e-bay this is now the only way of getting this modern version
of A Song of Thanksgiving. Generally the set is invaluable
for its distinguished and enthusiastic performances and for
its all-round excellence and its refreshing mix of the familiar
and catalogue rarities. This is achieved despite the mix of
orchestras: two discs deploy the Corydon, one each for the City
of London Sinfonia and the ECO. It is also secured across some
thirsty individual solo artists - mostly singers. Hyperion have
a good ear for these things as their Schubert lieder cycle amply
of the nineties granted freshly irresistible life in the now not
so new millennium.