For me there are two striking features about this programme. Firstly it mixes well-known Vaughan Williams, The Wasps Overture and English Folk Song Suite, with the rarely heard, still partly folksong influenced, but more ambitious Piano Concerto. Secondly it emphasises the contrast by what sounds to me like the use of a smaller string section in the pieces other than the Piano Concerto. This practice is certainly authentic in terms of the original expectations of the respective pieces. The Wasps items gain from the more homely, theatre-pit feel that results.
Judd’s Overture to The Wasps (tr. 1) abounds in atmosphere. There’s an abrasive and snarling introduction, a suitably jocular first theme (0:58), a confidently breezy march of a second theme (1:20), before a warm horn solo introduces the cantabile melody of the third theme (3:23) serenely repeated by violins. The idyllic quality of this central section is tellingly caught. RVW’s impish combination of the themes is clearly conveyed: the first and second at the latter’s first appearance and at the climax (8:51). The big tune that forms the third theme in the brass positively glows.
I compared the 1968 recording by Sir Adrian Boult with the London Philharmonic (EMI 7640202). Boult’s articulation of themes is more carefully crafted, neater but less spontaneous than Judd. Boult’s second theme, more dapper than jaunty, has more grandeur and in its expansion he finds a greater density of texture. His introduction of the third theme is more wistful and visionary, its repeat on violins smoother than Judd’s but not as sunny. His climax maintains more equality between the two themes on display.
Turning to the other items that make up the Aristophanic Suite, the first Entr’acte (tr. 2) is stealthily begun by strings before frisky intervention from flutes and clarinets and beaming swirls of sound. Judd makes it all glitter within a small confine, bright and balletic. Equally stealthy is the counter-tune at first in the violas and cellos from 1:44. It’s all neatly observed yet with a sense of delight too. This is more sophisticated and laid-back but less immediate. Judd’s March Past of the Kitchen Utensils (tr. 3) is amiably jaunty. He’s relatively gentle with the frequent sforzando chords that punctuate the proceedings. The more folksy Trio (from 1:22) Judd begins in homelier fashion but this grows increasingly animated, ending almost frenzied. Boult, by contrast, shows more aggression and menace in the March’s sforzandi but has a plainer Trio where transparency of structure is the chief concern.
In the second Entr’acte (tr. 4) Judd enjoys contrasting the confidence of the communal pageantry with the more hesitant individual interjections by woodwind and then reflective violin solo. Boult fuses the elements of pomp and reflection in a more rounded manner, easier on the ear but less dramatic. This distinction between the two performances applies similarly in the Ballet and Final Tableau (tr. 5). Judd provides a brisk and breezy opening but then there’s a graceful solo flute dance undeterred by an intermission of stomping strings. Oboe and clarinet share a dance of their own, presented with becoming modesty before the opening raucousness returns and things get faster. Here Judd is perhaps a little too disciplined. The faster Boult (6:05 in this section against Judd’s 6:41) shows more pep.
Asked what a Toccata was, I remember hearing a young organist once say ‘Oh, it’s just a noise’. I was reminded of this listening to the Toccata opening of RVW’s Piano Concerto. Pianist Ashley Wass and Judd bring bags of energy and bounce. There’s also, I feel, an overly bombastic solidity to the grandeur even when combined with the folksier elements RVW can’t resist. I compared Howard Shelley with the Royal Philharmonic/Vernon Handley (Lyrita SRCD 211) published in 1984. This account is more engaging in catching elements of humour, cheekiness and freshness. Shelley and Handley also bring about a smoother integration of the folksy manner.
On the other hand, the very intent, concentrated approach of Wass and Judd suits the slow movement Romanza (tr. 7) very well. It emphasises the meditative nature of the movement, its narrow compass and the repetition of melodic line. That line is mournfully taken up by flute solo before a more serene treatment by muted violins. It’s all gently done with the music entering a beatific phase from 4:25 before a more desolate return of the theme on oboe. Shelley and Handley impart a more searching quality to this movement, more projection of an argument than contemplation with a more abstract closing oboe threnody.
To the third movement fugue Wass and Judd bring an objective approach of mettlesome momentum and clarity. This results in a vigorous yet disciplined exchange between piano and orchestra. Wass finds weight and turbulence in the opening of the cadenza, then a wistful lingering feel to its cantabile aspects. Shelley and Handley are more relaxed, less bullish in the fugue, with the interplay between piano and orchestra thereby subtler and for me more enjoyable. Shelley’s cadenza is less marked by contrast than Wass who certainly makes it more of a show-piece, both stern and dazzling - by turns vehement and musing. Shelley’s more integrated approach suggests different aspects of the same personality whereas with Wass a split personality comes to mind. Both approaches work.
The finale (tr. 9) is marked ‘alla Tedesca’, a kind of quick waltz. Wass and Judd bring a good flow to it yet it becomes overmuch of a blustering, bouncy march. Shelley and Handley achieve more ‘swing’ as well as weight. Their sense of a long look back and thoughtful return to the slow movement material at the close is more smoothly realized than Wass and Judd’s. On the other hand, Wass’s opening solo does contrast loud public posturing with soft private questioning. The sudden pianissimo at 1:05, well realized by Judd in the orchestra, seems very characteristic of the whole work, as if bluster is just a defence for a pervasive humane and anxious perspective. Viewed in this light the bold contrast is appropriate and comes across well. After a briefly turbulent, exorcising piano cadenza, Wass’s silkily reflective approach magically takes us back to the relative calm and solitude of the slow movement. From 4:00, marked Largo sostenuto, this is worked into a sonorous peroration, though Wass here seems to me rather dutifully formal. More effective is a recollection of innocence in the bright, upper register of the close over a backcloth provided by the gentle strings.
The English Folk Song Suite is very pleasingly done. The march Seventeen come Sunday is all good cheer with an amiable trio section then lively violins and woodwind counter to the tune presented by brass and lower strings. I compared the 1970 recording by Sir Adrian Boult with the London Symphony Orchestra (EMI 7640222). This has both more edge and nuance and thus emerges with more character but Judd’s homelier approach has its merits too. I prefer Judd in the intermezzo, My bonny boy. His slightly slower Andantino, 3:15 against Boult’s 2:52, allows more room to breathe. His opening oboe solo has a more musing, faraway quality. His central Allegretto scherzando is both chirpy and intimate before the opening theme returns with a lovely gentleness in the string bass. Boult is more deliberate and comparatively stiff. In the closing march, Folk Songs from Somerset. Judd presents the tunes at first with a becoming modesty before their sprightly tutti repeats. The trio is all joviality. Here Boult is more resolute and purposeful and finds a good blend of sunniness and zest. Judd captures more of a sense of the carefree and innocent qualities of folksong.
Last up is The Running Set, a dance where several folk-tunes are combined to make one continuous movement. It’s presented with both clarity and gaiety by Judd. In its second phase (0:51) violins are added to the lower strings’ ground-swell and soon begin to soar. In its third (1:15), a gentle scurrying movement in the violins gives way to a more assertive statement of the theme on the horns. In its fourth phase (1:39) the original rhythm is headily replaced by a dazzling succession of crotchets. A jig is lightly launched from 2:28 by violins and violas. At 3:18 the delicacy of featuring the harp with the tune is relished, a better alternative to piano in this showing. Things get more raucous and at 4:57 comes the climax with the breezy introduction of the best-known tune of all, even if you’re less likely to know it’s called The Cock o’ the North. This is all rather over the top but Judd gives us a sweeping succession of inevitable progress. I compared the 2001 recording by the London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox (Chandos CHAN 10001). This is more vibrant and dramatic, the virtuosity more evident, but it’s easier to live with Judd as he’s less high powered. Even so, his medium-sized orchestra can still convey ample panache and a sense of fun.
To sum up, here’s a good value selection of familiar and less familiar Vaughan Williams. It’s engagingly performed and well recorded.