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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Fat Knight. Orchestral suite from the opera, Sir John in Love (1928, ed. 2015, realised by Martin Yates) [53:30]
Henry V Overture (1934) Orchestrated by Martin Yates (2015) [8:53]
Serenade to Music (1938 arr. 1940) Orchestral version [11:14]
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Martin Yates
rec. 24-26 August, 2015, Caird Hall, Dundee

The release of this SACD is very timely in that in contains Shakespeare-inspired music by RVW. As such it’s a welcome contribution to the 2016 celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the death of the Bard. However, as we shall see, it has an importance that goes well beyond that.

Serenade to Music is, arguably, the composer’s greatest Shakespeare composition. Furthermore, it’s one of his most inspired and beautiful compositions in any genre. Unfortunately, it’s recorded here in a version which, though made by the composer himself, is not ideal. VW made several arrangements of the score, appreciating that it might not always be too practical to assemble 16 fine singers to perform the original version. I’ve heard his arrangement for 4 soloists and chorus – a good compromise – and the version for chorus only, which I find less satisfying. However, I’d not previously come across this purely orchestral version which, we learn from Lewis Foreman’s notes, was first performed in February 1940, conducted by the work’s original dedicatee, Sir Henry Wood.

I must confess I assumed that this version would include the allocation of the vocal lines to instruments but, with a couple of isolated exceptions, this is not the case. In essence, what we hear is pretty much the original orchestral accompaniment. That works up to a point in the passages where all the sixteen singers were involved since the vocalists’ harmonies are largely replicated in the orchestra. However, when the tenor solos should start (“Look how the floor of heaven….”) it’s disconcerting not to hear the singer’s melodic line. The effect here and elsewhere is rather like listening to one of those backing tracks. Furthermore, there are some cuts. Though it was hard to be precise when following from a vocal score, there seems to be a cut of a couple of bars where a soprano would normally sing “Come, ho! and wake Diana with a kiss.” More damagingly, the entire Andante con moto section, which includes the first of the alto solos and all those for the basses, is cut. I’m afraid I find all this very unsatisfactory. That said, the orchestral part is wonderful and the RSNO plays beautifully – James Clark’s violin solos are a delight. So if you can take listening to the piece in what is very much a second-best format then the performance itself is admirable. It has been recorded previously by the Northern Sinfonia and Richard Hickox (Warner/EMI Classics) as well as by LPO/Vernon Handley, the latter issued by Chandos.

The Henry V Overture was written for brass band, probably in 1933 or 1934, Michael Kennedy believed. Martin Yates has orchestrated it and this is the first recording in that guise. It seems to me that Yates has done an excellent job of converting the music into a full orchestral score; the results seem wholly convincing to me. Bearing in mind the work’s genesis and its chivalric subject the frequent brass fanfares will not come as a surprise but all the rest of the orchestra gets plenty of opportunity to shine. We recently listened to this piece in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio and my initial verdict that this is a lively recording of lively music hasn’t changed on further acquaintance.

VW extracted quite a bit of material from his opera, Sir John in Love and used the music for concert works; the best-known example is the choral cantata, In Windsor Forest (Albion and Warner/EMI Classics). The case of Fat Knight is slightly different, however. It’s a substantial seven-movement piece which exists in a version for two pianos. Did VW intend to orchestrate it, I wonder? It incorporates a lot of music from the opera but also some material which VW cut from the score of Sir John in Love. The various movements follow the chronological line of the opera so that nothing here is heard out of sequence. Basing his work on the orchestration for the opera itself Martin Yates has orchestrated Fat Knight in full. The documentation gives the individual track timings but not an overall timing for Fat Knight so it was only when I first played the disc that I realised just how substantial a suite it is.

Fat Knight takes in various elements in the opera’s plot. So, in the first movement we are thrust right into the bustle of ‘A Street in Windsor’. Though quite a bit of this movement is energetic there are some winning lyrical passages, none more so than the glorious broad theme that is heard at 3:15. The second movement, ‘Falstaff at the Garter Inn’, is heavily influenced by folk song. The fourth movement is sensibly split into two tracks; the first is ‘A Field near Windsor’ which leads seamlessly into ‘Greensleeves and [Act 3] Finale’. Lewis Foreman describes this movement as “a delightfully tuneful 15-minute Shakespearean tone poem” and suggests that it might even find an independent existence as a concert piece in its own right. I agree on all counts.

The sixth movement, ‘Midnight in Windsor Forest by Moonlight’, is almost as extensive as the fourth movement. Early on the haunting nocturnal atmosphere is very well suggested in the scoring, especially by the cor anglais solos. There’s quite a lot of dance music as the fairies tease Falstaff and in the second half of the movement these dances are punctuated from time to time by the horn calls of Herne the Hunter. Without a pause we move into the Finale where much is made at the start and again right at the end of a stately melody that is given fine treatment by VW.

Fat Knight is hugely enjoyable. It seems to me that Martin Yates has done a first class job in bringing VW’s two-piano score vividly to life. The results sound thoroughly convincing. The RSNO give a sparkling, colourful account of the music. I may not have been happy at the prospect of Serenade to Music being heard sans voices but Fat Knight seems to work much better in this regard.

We liked the recorded sound when we listened to the Henry V Overture in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio and the other pieces have been recorded with equal success. Lewis Foreman’s notes are authoritative and informative.

This disc is a must for Vaughan Williams devotees.

John Quinn



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