For Vaughan Williams aficionados, any new recording is a potential joy, but one released under the auspices of The Vaughan Williams Society - Albion Records is its recording arm - featuring two world premieres is cause for celebration. The works span his composing career, pre- and post-Ravel, emphasising yet again how key were those lessons in 1908. It also highlights the importance of British literature in his music, as all the works, even the orchestral pieces, have a direct literary connection.
The three orchestral Impressions of the English countryside that open the disc were not written as a set. The first two were part of an intended set of four, but only The Solent was actually finished, with Burley Heath being completed for this recording by James Francis Brown. The later work, Harnham Down, is the survivor of a pair of further Impressions.
Burley Heath is intermittently recognisable as Vaughan Williams, especially the opening page, but shows the strong influence of Brahms that characterises the pre-Ravel works. It is interesting and pleasant company.
The Solent’s manuscript is prefaced by two lines by the 19th century English poet, Philip Marston:
Passion and sorrow in the deep sea’s voice
A mighty mystery saddening all the wind
The clarinet melody that opens The Solent will be very familiar to followers of Vaughan Williams, as it is heard again in the first movement of the Sea Symphony and in the Ninth Symphony. The entrance of the strings is a view a few years into the future and the Tallis Fantasia. At almost twelve minutes in duration, it is one of the composer’s first major orchestral ventures and has his mature fingerprints throughout. It is a major discovery, and we are indebted to Albion for its release.
Harnham Down, prefaced by a stanza from Matthew Arnold, was written a few years after the first two Impressions, but is not as interesting. It meanders peacefully in its pastoral bliss, but the composer’s comments of 1908 that his felt he had to “a dead end” with his music, it being “lumpy” and stodgy” would seem to be quite relevant here.
Not being a lover of art song, I enjoyed the three orchestrated Travel songs more than the more familiar versions with piano accompaniment. Roland Wood was an unfamiliar name to me, but he gives a good, hearty account.
The Four Hymns, while not a premiere recording, were a work I hadn’t heard for a long while, and certainly hadn’t made the impression this performance did. This is the first post-Ravel work on the disc, and the mature Vaughan Williams voice is there in all its glory. Full credit to Andrew Kennedy who sings magnificently, and makes the work shine. If you like the Five Mystical Songs, written a few years earlier, you will like these.
The Mayor of Casterbridge was a commission from the BBC to accompany a radio dramatisation of the Thomas Hardy novel. I assume that the seven and a half minutes presented here are not the entire score. The brief opening is an unaccompanied folk song that the composer had found in his pre-WWI expeditions. The Casterbridge movement is based on one of his favourite carols for use in the Casterbridge music, On Christmas Night the Joy-Bells Ring, while the Intermezzo is classic Vaughan Williams bliss. The Weyhill Fair “movement” contains five very short sections from the score, and are a contrast in their vigour to the other extracts.
The Prelude is a rewriting and expansion of the carol-derived part of the Casterbridge score, the composer wanting to ensure that such a fine piece of music had a life of its own. It is a five minute distillation of all that is great in his music.
The playing of the Royal Liverpool Phil is very fine, the contribution by Principal viola Nicholas Bootiman to the Hymns excellent, and the impression that those Hymns made, when another performance hadn’t, suggests that Paul Daniel has succeeded brilliantly here.
I bought this as a download direct from the label in 320 kbps mp3, and the audio quality is all one could wish for. The very informative sleeves notes are not provided as part of the download, but are available in full on the website.
This is a major undertaking by Albion Records, and deserves to succeed as it is a triumph.
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