Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
The Wasps: Aristophanic suite (1909) [26:05]
Piano Concerto in C (1926-30) [27:39]
English Folk Song Suite (1923) (orch. Gordon Jacob) [9:17]
The Running Set (1933) [6:36]
Ashley Wass (piano)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/James Judd
rec. Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, 27-28 January 2009.
NAXOS 8.572304 [69:37]

Vaughan Williams was a pupil of Parry and Stanford, the last named sending him off to Max Bruch in Berlin for some curious reason. Bruch told him to ‘get rid of all those flattened sevenths’, advice which the young man thankfully ignored. He went on to Paris, where he took lessons from Ravel, absorbing French impressionism. So with those flattened sevenths very much part of his harmonic armoury, he created his own distinctive sound and English impressionist school, now an established part of the fabric as far as English music is concerned.

This disc contains a couple of pieces of familiar music, The Wasps overture and the English Folk Song Suite in Gordon Jacob’s orchestration. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under James Judd set out their stall at the start and we are promised a full-bodied, lush sound, nothing cup-of-tea English about this overture. It is followed by the incidental music to Aristophanes’ play, which VW composed for a production at Cambridge University in 1909, and consisting of a couple of Entr’actes (the first pretty, the second more grandiose), followed by a droll march of kitchen utensils with no particular attempt at identifying either a pot, pestle or water jug, which despite the Greek play, remains quintessentially English, phrased with characteristically dry wit. To conclude there is a ballet, which, after a flute solo, degenerates into a romp and a final tableau quoting the overture again. The English Folk Song Suite (1923) was transcribed from its original military band setting, and will have been encountered in many school and county youth orchestras throughout the land. It never fails to please, nor here for it is played with relish and clean detail with a lovely oboe solo in ‘My Bonny Boy’. The Running Set is, according to the composer, ‘a dance of British origin still [1933] performed in the remoter parts of the USA, founded on traditional tunes [four of them]’. It makes a thrilling conclusion to the disc, if exhausting as a dance.
The four-movement Piano Concerto took four years to complete (between 1926 and 1930) and was written for Harriet Cohen, whose technique was more than a match for its formidable difficulties. This was a time when Busoni was popular, in particular his transcriptions of Bach’s keyboard music, for which Vaughan Williams had great respect (hence the first movement title of ‘Toccata’). A free-ranging cadenza (its freedom emphasised by a total lack of bar lines) carries the work forward to the beautifully imaginative Romanza, the nearest we get to the Vaughan Williams of the Tallis Fantasia. The last two movements are linked, first is a chromatic fugue of considerable complexity by the time it has been fully explored, followed by a finale based around German dances, including an eerie waltz. It was a combination of a rejection by the public of its dissonant harmonic language and by the critics of his overpowering orchestration swamping the piano that led Vaughan Williams to withdraw it and reshape it (with Joseph Cooper) into a two-piano version in 1946. This recording should confirm that such a move was unnecessary, for Ashley Wass gives a brilliant performance, the climax of the slow movement most memorable as well as the various cadenzas in the work. The RLPO give sterling support and Judd conjures a magical pianissimo to conclude the work on this landmark recording.

Christopher Fifield
Nothing cup-of-tea English about this ... see Full Review