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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910) [16:08]
A Pastoral Symphony (1921) [36:06]
Five Variants of ‘Dives and Lazarus’ (1939) [11:27]
Overture: ‘The Wasps’ (1908/9) [9:34]
Sarah Fox (soprano)
Hallé/Sir Mark Elder
rec. 3-4 November 2012, BBC Studios, MediaCity, Salford; 9-19 September 2013, Hallé St. Peter’s, Ancoats, Manchester
HALLÉ CDHLL7540 [74:16]

We’ve already had several very fine Vaughan Williams releases from Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé. Now here’s another one to join the ‘London Symphony (review), the Fifth and Eighth Symphonies (review) and the complete incidental music for The Wasps (review).

Though this team recorded all of the music for The Wasps back in 2005 the present performance of the justly celebrated overture is not taken from there; instead we have a new recording. It’s a very good one. The vivacious outer sections are really well done: I hope I’ll be forgiven an atrocious pun if I say that the music buzzes. In the middle of the piece we hear that marvellous broad melody that Michael Kennedy describes in his notes as ‘one of English music’s great tunes’. It’s warmly sung here and it provides Vaughan Williams with the foundation for a wonderful central section. This sturdy, good-humoured overture is really well done here.

The key word in the title of Five Variants of ‘Dives and Lazarus’ is “of”. This is not a set of variations on the tune. Instead Vaughan Williams here weaves something of a collage using several regional variants of the tune that he encountered over several years after he first collected it in 1893. He was strongly impressed by the tune on first hearing and no wonder for it’s a fine, flowing melody. In this piece he consistently enriches and renews the tune. It may not be as deep a piece as the ‘Tallis’ Fantasia but it’s still a very fine work and Elder and his players give a lovely account of it.

If anything, they’re even finer in the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis but perhaps that’s unsurprising since this is one of the great English works in any genre and its quality must surely inspire any musicians who essay it. Here the cultured sound of the Hallé strings is most impressive. There’s much beauty in this performance but also intensity. The management of the different ‘choirs’ of instruments is very well done. The small separate orchestra is very nicely differentiated (for example from 4:12) and the solo quartet, which I presume is comprised of principals from the orchestra, plays beautifully. The main climax (from 11:03) has fine passion, as is the case in the build-up to that moment, and elsewhere there’s some marvellously rapt soft playing to savour. This is a very refined performance of a work in which, as Michael Kennedy felicitously expresses it, ‘a great English composer of the 20th century links hands with one of his predecessors over a gap of 350 years.’ As I listened to Sir Mark’s expertly judged reading I could understand why the young Herbert Howells and Ivor Gurney were so deeply stirred by hearing its first performance in Gloucester Cathedral back in 1910.

I wonder what people would have made of ‘A Pastoral Symphony’ when it was first heard in the 1920s if the composer had simply entitled it Symphony No 3. As it was, its title and its surface beauty and many passages of tranquillity may explain why some misjudged it as simply a work of naïve and nostalgic English tone painting. I must confess that when I first encountered it in my teens I too failed to understand its depths and the disturbing undercurrents that lie not too far below its surface. Now, having read about the music much more and heard it in a variety of performances it seems clear that this score represented RVW’s reaction to the Great War and the horrors he’d seen at first hand while helping to tend the wounded in France. And as well as reacting to the war in the symphony he was almost certainly reflecting on the personal loss of friends, many of them musicians of great promise, killed in the conflict. If this symphony is his War Requiem then its tone is, for the most part, subdued but maybe that’s the equivalent, for this musician at least, of all those brave men who returned from the conflict but were reluctant to speak of what they’d been through and witnessed.

The mood of the first movement is, as Michael Kennedy says, ‘gently elegiac and dark’. The music is full of intertwining lines on strings and woodwind and one of the many achievements of this performance is that our ears are drawn to all of these lines but in a way that is wholly natural. The clarity of texture is exemplary yet never clinical. As Michael Kennedy points out in his indispensable book, The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams, there is no traditional development in this movement: ‘instead there is a free evolution of one tune from another, a process of regeneration, like streams flowing into each other, coalescing and going on their way’. As so often with this writer: the mots justes. He goes on to say that ‘the predominant mood of the symphony is one of sadness and compassionate melancholy’. Once again, “compassionate melancholy” hits the nail right on the head and that, I think, is a quality that comes across in this performance. In the first movement – and elsewhere - the Hallé offer lots of refined and sensitive playing but they also provide the music with backbone. This account presents the first movement – rightly – as something more than a beautiful English pastoral landscape translated into sound. To be sure, there’s beauty here but what’s laid before us is a troubled landscape while in the sky above clouds frequently cast a shadow, covering the sun and so turning the colours of the landscape darker until they pass.

The second movement, also essentially slow in pace, is unsettled and it’s expressively delivered here. Elder and his players take great care over the textures. At 3:57 we hear the gentle distant trumpet call, beautifully voiced, a moment that Michael Kennedy has described in his book as ‘dusk turned into notes’. Later (at 7:35) the call is heard again, just as evocatively, but this time played by the horn with a clarinet gently keeping company.

The third movement offers a significant contrast to its predecessors. Here is galumphing music, the origins of which apparently lie in a Falstaff-related project that came to nothing. The bluff nature of this movement gives us a much-needed contrast after what has gone before. After a spirited performance the Will-o’-the-Wisp ending is done deftly, the music seeming to vanish into the ether as if the forthright music heard earlier in the movement were just a distant memory – or an illusion.

The finale opens with a wordless cantilena for soprano over a quiet timpani roll. I’m afraid I find Sarah Fox something of a disappointment here. Her singing sounds too forthright – there’s certainly too much vibrato – and much of the essential magic is missing. Turn to Heather Harper for André Previn (review) or Amanda Roocroft for Bernard Haitink (review) for just two examples that came readily to hand of how ethereal the sung passages at the start and end of this movement should sound. In fairness to Miss Fox I’m not sure she’s been too well served by the recording. The sound throughout this disc is very fine but Sarah Fox sounds as if she’s singing from the far end of the hall, possibly from a balcony. Her rivals seem to be positioned in an adjacent room. Perhaps such an arrangement was not possible in the hall at Hallé St. Peter’s where the symphony was recorded but the soprano solo passages offer a case, I think, where distance definitely lends enchantment. The rest of the movement is excellent,. Once again the orchestral playing is extremely refined and Elder conducts magnificently and with evident feeling for the music.

Apart from the reservation about the solo soprano this is a wonderful performance of the ‘Pastoral’. The performances of all four works on this disc confirm the stature of Sir Mark Elder as a very distinguished interpreter of Vaughan Williams and the Hallé plays magnificently throughout. The engineering is very good and the notes, by our foremost expert on the composer, as fine as you’d expect.

With four Vaughan Williams symphonies now issued I think we can safely assume that a cycle is on the way. It shows every sign of being one of the finest ever committed to disc and I hope that more releases will follow soon. If I may make a personal plea I hope Sir Mark will not overlook Job. We need a new recording of that masterpiece and one from this source could be something very special indeed.

John Quinn

Masterwork Index: A Pastoral Symphony ~~ Tallis Fantasia