There are some enjoyable performances amongst this anthology,
but variable and sometimes mediocre sound quality is a drawback.
It commendably covers different aspects of the composer's writing
- vocal and orchestral, for cinema, on religious themes, symphonies,
songs. It includes what are probably his best-known works, but
as a survey of his output it has some limitations - in particular
by not representing sufficiently the remarkable work of his last
decade. It might be more accurately described as "best-known"
rather than "Best of". A double CD would have given
more scope to show the wide range of this composer's writing,
which is not always fully appreciated.
Notwithstanding, some of these performances are of sufficient merit
in themselves to justify the purchase of this budget disk.
In particular, I would commend Roderick Williams' performance
of "Linden Lea", which is a real delight - his voice
being very well suited to the music. The singing of "Silent
Noon", by the tenor Anthony Rolfe Johnson accompanied by
Graham Johnson on piano, is also excellent.
This is followed by another track which I particularly liked, an extract
from "Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus", performed
by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. The RLPO Orchestra have made
a number of commendable recordings of the works of Vaughan Williams
under the recently deceased and perhaps under-appreciated Vernon
Handley, a great champion of English music of the first half
of the 20th century. This work sets a folk-tune which is also
the setting of a well-known hymn and then goes on to develop it
Slightly oddly placed halfway through the disc is a very enjoyable
performance of 'The Wasps' overture by the Bournemouth Symphony
Orchestra. Vaughan Williams wrote this to accompany a theatrical
performance of the Aristophanes play in its original Greek at
Cambridge. Its opening is particularly excellent here, and
in my opinion it would have made a better first track than the
extract used in this position of the 49th Parallel Prelude,
which is marred somewhat by its sound quality.
The well-known 'Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis' (now taken to
new heights by the excellent Proms performance given by the
BBC Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Davis - Prom 57) is given
a very slow but thoughtful and pleasant performance by the New
Zealand Symphony Orchestra who later in the disk perform the
also well-known and loved 'Fantasia on Greensleeves', although
this I found again pleasant but somewhat unexciting.
Vaughan Williams' symphonic output is acknowledged through the not
entirely representative choice of extracts from his first and
second symphonies, tracks eight and four of the disc respectively.
The London Symphony (number two), arguably a good choice in being
a characteristic and well evolved work relatively early in the
composer's working life, is represented by part of its first
movement. The performance here, by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra,
is very slow and I have to say I do not like it as much overall
as the Liverpudlian recording of this work under Vernon
Handley. However as the track progress, the "jig"
section evolves well and would show the listener new to Vaughan
Williams some of his most typical end enjoyable music.
The First ('Sea') Symphony is a work which I find intrinsically more
problematic, although it reflects a major concern for the composer
and hence a significant strand of his work. This performance,
again from the Bournemouth Symphony - this time under Paul Daniel
- is regrettably marred at times by some distortion and patchy
sound quality. There is a contrast between the dramatic playing
of the opening sequence portraying the scene and the almost
syrupy, over-refined singing which fails to convey the bleak
and desolate scene. Regrettably the limited space on the disc
has precluded extracts from pastoral, war or late symphonies,
which as someone with a serious interest in this admirable composer's
work I find a disappointing omission.
'The Lark Ascending', again a very well known and popular work, closes
the disc. It is a good choice - to include a work with instrumental
rather than vocal soloist - but there are a wide range of better
quality recordings, some of them inexpensive.
Although there are some very enjoyable pieces here, there are already
good inexpensive recordings of most of the RVW catalogue.