I have been listening to a lot of Vaughan Williams' music in recent
months and not just because of the 50th anniversary of his death.
After several years, recently, listening more to jazz and folk
- and even more so to hybrids of the two such as Robin Williamson's
ECM discs - I have returned increasingly to British notated music
of the first half of twentieth century. This was sparked initially
by the psycho-geographical connections of, in particular, Moeran, Ireland and Warlock. In the
2007 review issue of The Wire, Rob Young described this
trio as "fantastically underrated ... steeped in arcane folklore,
antiquarianism and homespun modernism". I'm not sure why
Bax didn't also figure with him!.
This movement is now very much in keeping with the current "hauntological"
zeitgeist. Do have a look at this connection
and follow the link for a brief introduction. The stories of Arthur
Machen and M.R. James can offer a perspective on where John
Ireland and his close contemporaries were coming from in their
more psychological works. This interest in turn led me back, via
the Hardy and Housman-informed fatalistic quietisms of Finzi and Gurney, to Vaughan Williams himself.
The main work on the present
disc – the Mass in G minor - is beautifully realised
by the chamber choir Laudibus, under
Mike Brewer. It is not one of the most well represented of
Vaughan Williams' works in the current catalogue. Two versions
spring to mind: by the Corydon Singers under Matthew Best
on Hyperion (until very recently full price but now on Helios)
and the Elora Festival Singers (from
Canada) on Naxos. The former is, unsurprisingly, the superior
recording of the two but the latter, though underpowered is
still worth hearing as a comparison. However, top-notch performance
of the Mass aside, this Laudibus
issue also has considerable "value added" in terms
of several rare and unusual couplings - maybe even more so
than the Corydon's Howells pieces. OK, so we have the quite
and "Ca' the Yowes". However
the other pieces range from the very early "Three Elizabethan
Part Songs" written in the composer's late twenties to
"Silence and Music" - simultaneously resigned and
valedictory, at least to these ears. This latter is to texts
by his second wife Ursula and was premiered in 1953, just
five years before his death. The "theme" to the
disc, if indeed there is one, is Vaughan Williams' juxtaposition
of the sacred and the secular and influences Elizabethan and
folk-based. This represents almost a microcosm of his life's
work, if you will - although some of the recent tributes have
quite rightly scorned the two-dimensional "pastoral"
stereotype beloved of his critics.
The disc begins with "The
Souls of the Righteous", revisiting The Song of Solomon,
two decades after "Flos Campi".
There is also the near contemporaneous "Prayer to the
Father of Heaven" (1948). This is to words by John Skelton,
here in serious, not "Tudor Portraits" mode. The
latter and "O vos omnes"
are common to this Delphian disc
and the Naxos Elora offering. Shakespeare
is represented by the dark(ish)
"Three Shakespeare Songs" and two of the aforementioned
and much gentler "Elizabethan Part Songs". The programme
is completed by the brief but affecting "Love is a Sickness"
from 1913 and "Heart's Music" (set to Thomas Campion)
from near to the end of the composer's life.
Much of the music on the disc
could be described as aural balm. This is a product of both composer
and artists. On the other hand to those who have a wide appreciation
of his works, Vaughan Williams was someone who knew that, as the
Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo said, "What has no shadow has
no strength to live". If we listen solely to the more beatific
aspects of his oeuvre we are doing both him and ourselves a disservice.
We need the Fifth Symphony and the Piano Concerto, the
Fourth Symphony and The
Lark Ascending. All credit then to Mike Brewer and his choir
for the varied selection on offer here. These truly superlative
performances and recordings provide a fine and representative
blending of the ascetic and mellifluous aspects of an essential
composer's legacy to the English choral tradition. Another winner
see also Review
by John Quinn