The decision by the Vaughan Williams estate to release for publication and performance a tranche of his early chamber and orchestral works has proved to be popular with recording companies and performers. This is the third recording of the 1903 Piano Quintet I have heard and I suspect that is not a complete list. The "concern" of the Estate trustees one imagines was that the late-developing Vaughan Williams' reputation would in some way be tarnished by the public's knowledge of these apprentice works. Instead, one is able to enjoy this attractive and appealing music in its own right as well as marvelling at how, in just a few short years, Vaughan Williams went from being rather derivative to wholly personal.
Take the 1903 Piano Quintet that opens the disc. This is the same year Vaughan Williams started working on his Sea Symphony
- for all the occasions of awkwardness that beset the completed work his originality blazes out. In the Quintet, Brahms is a benevolent shade. Vaughan Williams uses the same instrumental line-up as the Schubert Trout Quintet
with a double-bass thickening the bottom line as opposed to a second violin as in the more traditional piano quintet ensemble. Then fascinatingly, as in the second subject of the opening movement, there is a glimpse of 'Music-yet-to-come' with a tentative violin-led theme gently reiterated by the piano. It is as though the 'original' Vaughan Williams is peeking out almost not daring to have the effrontery to be himself in the presence of the older master. The London Soloists Ensemble give an excitingly powerful and dramatic account of the score, excellently recorded at Champs Hill by veteran producer/engineer Michael Ponder. This music was first recorded on a very fine 2 CD set from Hyperion
by the Nash Ensemble. That compilation collected together in one place most of the early chamber works including three of the four recorded here plus several other substantial pieces. If that set is already in your collection, excellent and near complete as it is I am not sure the new disc will add substantially to your knowledge. However, in its own right this is very fine. The London Soloists offer a more dynamic and full-blooded approach than the Nash Ensemble with all the parts beautifully integrated but solo lines brought forward with character and panache. First amongst equals violinist Lorraine McAslan is a dynamic presence in the two main works to which she contributes. What I especially like is the high romantic style of her playing; flamboyant, dramatic and skilful as required. Vaughan Williams was never the greatest of composers for the keyboard but here John Lenehan makes light work of the frequently thick writing.
Violist Sarah-Jane Bradley has her own moment to shine in the undated Romance for Viola and Piano - it was found amongst the composer's papers after his death. Liner writer Paul Conway speculates it may have been written for Lionel Tertis. It is no reflection on the excellent Bradley, who gives a fine and eloquent performance, to say that this is the least interesting work on the disc. Whereas the other works might have been with-held on the grounds of being juvenilia, I suspect this remained in Vaughan Williams' bottom drawer simply because he knew it was not one of his finest or indeed very characteristic works.
McAslan, Bradley and Lenehan are joined by guest players Anthony Pike on clarinet and Tim Jackson on horn for the Quintet in D from 1898. Here the Brahmsian influence is even more undigested - indeed I would be amazed if any 'innocent ear' listener was able to identify this as a work by Vaughan Williams. Yet in many ways I enjoy this work more than the later piece. This is romantic music with a capital R. Big sweeping gestures made with a young man's confidence. The addition of the two wind instruments adds considerably to the tonal range. The clarinet writing - played here with melting beauty by Pike - is so directly influenced by Brahms' late chamber works as to be all but plagiaristic. I like the way Vaughan Williams delays the horn's first entry, so that when it does the elegiac melody has all the more impact. There are weaknesses and oddities in the work; the second movement Intermezzo [track 6] is as close to a salon waltz as anything the composer wrote. The cello has a relatively uninspiring part, rarely having much of an independent existence other than to reinforce the piano's bass line. Then there is an oddly directionless and rather weak fugato in the finale that seems to spring more from the exercise manual than any compositional imperative. But balance that against the third movement Andantino which is simply beautiful - deliberate reference to Brahms' 4th Symphony and all. Would we be listening to this music if it was not written by a composer who went onto far greater things? I do not know for sure but this is a very enjoyable and easy listen.
Initially I thought the inclusion of the much later - and relatively well known - Six Studies in English Folksong from 1926 to be at best rather anachronistic. I still wonder if it was included to showcase the great talent of the ensemble's clarinettist Anthony Pike. Two things disarm my doubts; the quietly simple genius of the work and Pike's exceptionally beautiful playing. By hearing this brief work at the end of the programme it reinforces the compositional journey Vaughan Williams made and
just what a liberating force the discovery of English Folksong was for him. Gone are the profligate, almost verbose - but enjoyable - gestures of the earlier works. Here is the very essence of both composer and original songs existing in perfect accord. The piano writing is a model of minimal intervention, simply supporting the melody or reinforcing a harmonic point. John Lenehan's accompaniment is quite superb - again aided by the excellence of the recording. The work exists in other versions - notably that for cello and piano. I think I prefer this version most, the purity of the clarinet's tone in some way matching the simple directness of the original songs. Many fine recordings exist of both versions but I do not think I have heard a better one than this; five of the six songs are in effect slow and lyrical and Pike floats his tone with effortless perfection. There is a little key action to be heard but nothing to disturb the gentle sense of rapture the players evoke.
An unusual typo from Naxos calls Vaughan Williams ‘Waughan Williams’ at one point but that aside the English-only liner is interesting and succinct. With a generous playing time and as a single disc survey of early Vaughan Williams chamber music coupled with a superb Six Studies, this disc is hard to beat.
Vaughan Williams review index: Chamber music