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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
see end of review for details
rec. 1962-94
EMI CLASSICS 6279102 [78:47 + 76.51]

Experience Classicsonline

For anyone starting out upon a Vaughan Williams collection, it would be hard to better this EMI compilation of classic recordings reissued at bargain price. The recordings span a period of more than thirty years but they are all impressive as sheer sound; in fact the re-masterings make them sound better than ever. And the artists are all figures closely associated with this repertoire, who have set benchmarks in their interpretations.

The earliest of the recordings open the first disc. Sir John Barbirolli recorded the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and the Fantasia on Greensleeves back in 1962, but the recordings sound wonderfully atmospheric and resonant, while the performances are beautifully judged. Vernon Handley, whose still recent death was such a tragic loss to English music in particular, conducts both The Wasps Overture and that extraordinarily intense masterpiece Flos Campi, in which the relationship between the subtle orchestral textures and the evocative wordless chorus is represented by a beautifully atmospheric recording perspective.

The most recent of these performances was recorded by the young Sarah Chang with the London Philharmonic and Bernard Haitink in 1994. The Lark Ascending demands the utmost sensitivity of the solo violinist and Chang’s pure tone is heard to fine effect. The pacing of the interpretation is tauter and less lingering than some performances – for example Hugh Bean (EMI) and David Greed (Naxos) – but it remains valid and wholly pleasing.

It is good to have a representative performance conducted by Sir David Willcocks, another artist who has been a great servant to this composer over the years. Conducting the Jacques Orchestra in 1968 in the Chapel of Trinity College Cambridge, he uses the resonant acoustic to maximum effect, and the relationship between string orchestra and harp is atmospherically captured.

This compilation covers many aspects of Vaughan Williams’s musical personality, though it is not intended as a representative study of the whole of his creative work. The so-called Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1, the only survivor of an intended collection of three such pieces, uses folk songs in an imaginative orchestral context, and Boult’s performance is finely balanced in every way.

The remaining items are all vocal. Recorded in 1970, the version of On Wenlock Edge by the Music Group of London and Ian Partridge can stand comparison with any of the many subsequent performances, both artistically and sonically. From 1974 there are songs from another great tenor, the late Anthony Rolfe Johnson, accompanied by David Willison. Silent Noon is among the most powerful of the composer’s early works, dating from 1903 when he had just turned thirty. Vaughan Williams was a late developer and made his major breakthrough with the Sea Symphony and when he was aged 38. Rolfe Johnson and Willison also perform the distinctive cycle Songs of Travel, composed the year after Silent Noon.

Vaughan Williams composed his Serenade to Music as a tribute to the great conductor Sir Henry Wood, at whose Golden Jubilee Concert in October 1938 it was premiered. The music’s qualities of lyric beauty surely derived from the text he chose to set, taken from the scene in Portia's garden in Act V of The Merchant of Venice. The conception was also remarkable for its choice of forces: sixteen solo singers, each of whom had been closely associated with Sir Henry as their careers had developed. In due course the composer made both choral and orchestral versions in order to facilitate performances, but it is the original version, as recorded here, that serves the concept best. Under the direction of Sir Adrian Boult in 1969, sixteen top singers of the day, many among them still household names to music-lovers today, give a memorable performance that does full justice to one of the most beautiful works Vaughan Williams ever created.

Terry Barfoot

Details
CD 1
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis [16:14]; Fantasia on Greensleeves [4:40]
Sinfonia of London/Sir John Barbirolli
Overture: The Wasps [10:08]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
The Lark Ascending [13:35]
Sarah Chang (violin); London Philharmonic Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
Flos Campi [22:16]
Christopher Balmer (viola); Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir/Vernon Handley
Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus [11:25]
Jacques Orchestra/Sir David Willcocks

CD 2

Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 [10:15]
New Phiharmonia Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
On Wenlock Edge [21:29]
Ian Partridge (tenor); Music Group of London
Silent Noon [5:02]; Songs of Travel [26:20]
Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor); David Willison (piano)
Serenade to Music [13:15]
Norma Burrowes, Sheila Armstrong, Susan Longfield, Marie Hayward (sopranos); Alfreda Hodgson, Gloria Jennings,, Shirely Minty, Meriel Dickinson, (contraltos); Ian Partridge, Bernard Dickerson, Wynford Evans, Kenneth Bowen (tenors); Richard Angas, John Carol Case, John Noble, Christopher Keyte (basses); London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult

Recording details
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis: Temple Church London, November 1962
Fantasia on Greensleeves: Kingsway Hall London 1962
Overture: The Wasps: St Augustine’s Kilburn June 1985
The Lark Ascending: Abbey Road London, December 1994
Flos Campi: Philharmonic Hall Liverpool September 1986
Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus: Trinity College Cambridge July 1968
Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1: Abbey Road London, January 1968
On Wenlock Edge: Abbey Road London, January 1970
Silent Noon, Songs of Travel: Hornsey Town Hall, April 1974
Serenade to Music: Kingsway Hall London, November 1969

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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