Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Overture to The Wasps [8.34]
The lark ascending* [13.42]
Fantasia on Greensleeves [4.15]
Oboe Concerto+ [16.41]
Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis [15.15]
Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus [10.53]
Michael Bochmann (violin)*; Maurice Bourgue (oboe)+
English String Orchestra/William Boughton
rec. Great Hall, Birmingham University, 14-16 July 1989 and 1985 (Wasps and Lark ascending)
NIMBUS NI 7013 [70.05]
Long before The lark ascending became one of the most popular landmarks of the violinists’ repertory, one of the very first recordings of the work became a staple of the Argo LP catalogue. There had been two previous recordings by Sir Adrian Boult: the earlier now available on Dutton CDBP 9703, and the later one in various EMI collections. The version issued in 1972 by Iona Brown and the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields under Neville Marriner effectively began the cumulative process of establishing the work as the favourite it has since become. That LP also contained recordings of the Tallis Fantasia, the Fantasia on Greensleeves and one of the first recordings of the Dives and Lazarus variants. When it was first reissued on CD a later recording by the same forces of the Oboe Concerto was added. The releases have now been repackaged in various forms. This Nimbus disc reduplicates the contents of that CD, but for the brief Harmonica Romance included by Marriner it substitutes the better-known and more substantial overture from The Wasps.
So, how does this release compare with its distinguished predecessor? Well, in the first place Marriner’s readings, superbly played and recorded as they were, were rather lacking in character – the more recognisably so as we have got to know these pieces better. Character is one thing that Boughton’s performances could not be accused of wanting. The two works, recorded earlier, which include wind instruments have plenty of individuality. Most people purchasing this disc will be looking for a performance of The lark ascending. Over the years there has been an infinity of performances to choose from, ranging from Hugh Bean’s pioneering and still effective account for Boult to Nigel Kennedy’s incredibly slow - and very beautiful - version with Rattle; the latter available in various couplings. In the version here Michael Bochmann is set slightly back in the recorded acoustic. This lends his playing a nicely distanced romantic quality but the resulting sound is a bit thin for music which we are used to hearing with a more romantic ardour. Both he and Boughton are too ready to allow the music to fall into a lazily swinging 6/8 rhythm which sounds folksy enough but misses the more poetic heart of the music. A little more rhythmic give-and-take is really needed here, but the orchestral balance is nicely judged and the work casts much of its accustomed spell.
The Wasps was originally performed with a pit orchestra with very few strings, but the usual tendency has been to use a full symphonic complement in this music. Boughton’s players have plenty of body, but he tears into the music with terrific zip which leaves the strings scurrying in places and unable therefore to give full substance to their sound. The wind and brass dominate in a way that might mirror the original performances, but some of the more lyrical passages really need more weight; the reprise of the big tune on the trumpet comes across as vulgar in quite the wrong sort of way - and I know that the play is a comedy, and the big tune is set in the full incidental music to words that are pretty vulgar in their own right.
The sound in the other tracks recorded four years later, for strings only with various soloists, is rather more forward. It is very difficult to go wrong in the Fantasia on Greensleeves, and Boughton does it full justice. In the middle section the contrasting tune of Lovely Joan is given delightful poise, but one does wish that he would bring out the counterpoint – derived from the line in the opera Sir John in love (from which the Fantasia is extracted) to the words “Thine own true knight”. Incidentally this beautiful middle section is, incredibly enough, marked in the operatic score as an optional cut – and this cut is indeed made in both complete recordings (Davies; Hickox) of the opera despite its references to the “knight” motif.
The Oboe Concerto is not one of Vaughan Williams’s most popular works, and indeed despite its pastoral atmosphere it does lack some degree of memorability. The prolific composer could not be expected to produce a masterpiece every time. The experienced Maurice Bourgue plays with great poise and affection, but does not really succeed in convincing us that the work is greater than it is. He is not helped by a rather forward balance which only serves to emphasise the note-spinning nature of some of the passages he is given to play. A more substantial string sound might have helped in the scherzo finale, where Bourgue also produces some rather undignified squawks in some of the fastest passages.
The Tallis Fantasia, on the other hand, is a blazing masterpiece. There are two ways to play this piece. First: slowly and with a sense of architecture, emphasising the contrasts between the various near and distant string groups and achieving a sense of ethereal calm - the Boult and Marriner approach. Second: with full romantic passion, bringing out the emotion inherent in the Tallis melody - the Barbirolli approach. Both can be equally effective, but whichever approach is adopted the work absolutely demands a sufficiently large body of strings to bring out the contrasts in the music. It doesn’t really get that here, and however good the playing - and it is very good - one really wants a bigger volume of sound from the main group in the second richly embroidered statement of the Tallis melody. To my mind the best recording of this that I have heard is that by Andrew Davis (now on Warner Apex) given in the acoustic of Gloucester Cathedral for which the work was originally conceived. The recorded sound here cannot begin to match the sense of space there, although the distant string group is nicely ethereal. Boughton seems to be aiming for the Barbirolli approach - his speeds move forward flowingly, sometimes too much so - but his players lack the sheer body of sound that Barbirolli obtains from his pick-up band (various EMI couplings). One notes with pleasure the playing of Susan Lynn and Helen Roberts in the violin and viola solos.
Similarly Dives and Lazarus really demands a large string body. It was written for performance at the New York World Fair, and presumably the composer had substantial forces at his disposal there. Without such forces the divided strings can sound horribly scrawny in places, as they do in the Willcocks’s pioneering recording with the Jacques Orchestra; this despite the assistance of the ultra-reverberant acoustic of King’s College Chapel. On the other hand, if the strings are too numerous the important passages for harp can fail to come through the texture. Vernon Handley - currently available only as part of his set of the complete symphonies - judges this to perfection. It is amazing that the EMI Vaughan Williams ‘edition’ (30 discs) preferred Willcocks’s performance to his. Although Boughton does not really have enough strings here to produce the ideal creamily romantic sound, he achieves a nicely poised performance. The playing is considerably superior to that obtained by Willcocks - the contrapuntal passage at 5.04 is much more expertly handled. The harp of Audrey Douglas comes through nicely in a very natural balance.
There are indeed better performances in the catalogue of all these individual pieces but as a package this is highly acceptable if these are precisely the works you want; and nobody else has precisely this collection. David Gutman’s booklet note mounts a robust defence of Vaughan Williams against those who accuse his music of being “a trickle of pentatonic wish-wash”; quite rightly too. One would hope that in the eighteen years since this note was written the need for such a defence has become less necessary.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
As a package this is highly acceptable if these are precisely the works you want.