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.
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 familiar "Greensleeves" 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.
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
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
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
. 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 from Delphian!
see also reviews
Quinn (August RECORDING
OF THE MONTH)
and John France