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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Sinfonia Antartica (Symphony No.7) (1949-51) [41:40]
Four Last Songs (orch. Anthony Payne) (1954-58) [9:48]
Concerto for two pianos and orchestra (1926-31, arr. 1946 by Vaughan Williams and Joseph Cooper (1912-2001)) [25:55]
Mari Eriksmoen (soprano)
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Hélène Mercier, Louis Lortie (pianos)
Bergen Philharmonic Choir; Edvard Grieg Kor
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. 2017, Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway
CHANDOS CHSA5186 SACD [77:47]

With this release Chandos complete their cycle of the Vaughan Williams symphonies on SACD. Most of those recordings were made by the late Richard Hickox but it fell to Sir Andrew Davis to complete the cycle with a fine recording of the Ninth Symphony (review) and now Sinfonia Antartica.

I’m familiar with a number of excellent recordings of Sinfonia Antartica, including those by Sir John Barbirolli, Sir Adrian Boult – both for Decca and EMIVernon Handley and André Previn. There’s also Bernard Haitink, whose 1984 EMI recording of the work I admire a lot. My colleague Dan Morgan reviewed an LPO Live recording, which I suspect dates from around the same time as the EMI sessions. However, if you can get hold of a copy of the EMI disc I think that shows Haitink to even better advantage, not least because the sound is so fine: it deservedly won a Gramophone engineering award. I noted that in his review of the Barbirolli recording Rob Barnett expressed reservations about the work itself: “Overall, though, I still wonder about this work as a symphony. It is in some ways better thought of as a chilly concerto for orchestra where pleasure comes from the many vivid pictorial episodes.” I know what he means; I’ve been thoughtful about the symphonic nature of this piece myself. However, I’ve been helped to appreciate the work much more in appraising this Andrew Davis recording thanks to another recent VW disc.

Not long before receiving this SACD I purchased Martin Yates recording of the complete score for the film Scott of the Antarctic. I made the purchase partly out of curiosity and partly because my colleague, Jim Westhead was so enthusiastic about it (review). The disc was nothing short of a revelation. I’d seen the film, of course, but I realise now that I’d not taken proper note of VW’s music. It came as a real surprise to discover just how much music from the film score didn’t find its way into the symphony – the full film score contains nearly 80 minutes of music. It was fascinating to hear the original music that VW wrote for the film and then, when listening to the Davis disc, to hear how he’d used – and developed – the music that he put into the symphony. The music for the film is very varied in nature and some was written to accompany what I might term lighter moments – if only relatively speaking – in the film. What really impressed me, however, was the extent to which VW wrote on an epic scale in the film score, achieving that in many fairly short spells of music that each play for between two and four minutes.

It’s the epic side of the score that spills over so much into the symphony and I’m glad to say that Sir Andrew Davis puts across this epic aspect very successfully. In so doing he’s assisted greatly by top-drawer playing from the Bergen Philharmonic and also by Chandos sound of great richness, depth and range. My colleague Brian Wilson expressed reservations about the recording when he reviewed it as a download. Brian was concerned by the wide dynamic range of the recording and commented specifically: “set the first movement at a comfortable level – and even then, the wind machine is rather understated – and the louder passages in later movements are simply too loud for domestic listening.” That’s an important caveat of which I feel I should remind readers. That done, I can say that I didn’t have the same issue though the big climaxes – and particularly the organ-dominated one in the third movement – pack a tremendous punch and some other listeners may get a similar experience to Brian.

That third movement, ‘Landscape’ is the crux of the symphony for me. In this performance the opening few minutes are gaunt and forbidding, as they should be; the music is fairly quiet but it suggests a vast, daunting scene. Davis conveys this extremely well and his performance has tremendous tension. The orchestra makes the music sound implacable. Later (from about 7:31), the build-up to the great climax is potently done. The climax is dominated by the organ. Here the sound is tremendous. Chandos don’t say so in their booklet but I wonder if they’ve used the mighty Rieger organ in the Domkirken, Bergen as they did with such stunning effect in Sir Andrew’s recording of Job (review); I rather suspect they have. Davis and his orchestra – and engineer Ralph Couzens - reveal the dreadful majesty of the glacier. Incidentally, it’s worth saying that the Dutton Epoch SACD recording of the complete film score is pretty impressive too.

Earlier in the symphony Davis leads a fine account of the opening movement. The wordless female singers (from 3:13) are well placed in the soundscape; they sound sufficiently present to make the proper effect yet they are suitably distanced. I also like the delicacy and tenderness that Davis and his players bring to the fourth movement. The finale is initially arresting; Davis brings out the drama and the sonority of his orchestra is very impressive. Towards the end the keening women’s voices and the wind machine make the appropriately chilling effect, reminding me of the wailing spirits in the Apollyon episode in Pilgrims Progress. At the end we are left with nothing but the desolate sound of the wind machine: the forces of nature have overcome mankind’s heroism on this occasion.

This is a fine version of Sinfonia Antartica. Davis has the measure of the music and the Bergen orchestra plays it superbly. The contributions of soprano Mari Eriksmoen and the female chorus are first rate. The performance is presented in the finest recorded sound I can recall hearing in the work.

The disc is made even more attractive by the enterprising couplings. Unlike Richard Strauss, VW didn’t compose his Four Last Songs as a set. Indeed, I think I’m correct in saying that only one, Menelaus (1954), was performed publicly in his lifetime. The four were published together in 1960 and they were first performed by a female singer, Pamela Bowden. When Anthony Payne orchestrated them, it was another female singer, the mezzo Jennifer Johnston, who first performed them in that guise in 2013. She went on to make the first recording of the Payne version which was issued by Albion Records on an intriguing and excellent VW disc entitled Discoveries (review). Now the orchestrated songs appear on disc for the first time sung by a male artist. I greatly admired Jenifer Johnston’s recording and Roderick Williams is predictably fine too. He is ideally suited to this assignment since these songs call for finely nuanced singing and Ursula Vaughan Williams’ poems demand an artist who will care for the words.

Stephen Connock tells us in his notes that Anthony Payne modelled his orchestrations of the second and third songs on VW’s own 1905 orchestrations of three of his Songs of Travel. Whether using VW as an exemplar or not, it seems to me that Payne’s scoring of all four songs is completely idiomatic and convincing. He sheds new light on these late songs, adding colour that the original piano accompaniment can’t provide. I think the set is an apt foil for Sinfonia Antartica since I can hear definite echoes of VW’s scoring of the symphony coming through in Payne’s version of the fourth song, Menelaus. The present performance of these four songs is both excellent and sympathetic in every respect. Incidentally, Roderick Williams himself has orchestrated VW’s song cycle The House of Life. I heard a performance of this version last year. It struck me as extremely successful (review) and I hope one of the record companies will invite Williams to record it before too long.

I’m very glad to find the Concerto for two pianos and orchestra included on this disc. VW wrote it for Harriet Cohen to play as a concerto for one piano. Cohen premiered the work but, apparently, its technical demands were beyond her. The work languished until immediately after the Second World War when the husband-and-wife duo, Cyril Smith and Phyllis Sellick suggested that Joseph Cooper should be involved in adapting the concerto for two pianos. It seems that Cooper did most of the work, including adding 27 bars of music, but that VW took a very close interest, not least in one crucial respect. A couple of years ago, when reviewing another recording of the work I wrote of the finale: “The cadenza flows seamlessly into a subdued conclusion to the concerto which comes as something of a surprise after so much sound and fury in the outer movements of the concerto.” It appears that I wasn’t the only one surprised by the ending. Stephen Connock relates that after the first performance of the revised concerto VW himself added the gentle cadenza and conclusion, much to the surprise of Joseph Cooper. I’m glad VW took that step because the ending is lovely.

The concerto makes a strong impression in this performance. Hélène Mercier and Louis Lortie bring out all the percussive brilliance of the first movement in a very energetic performance. They get splendid support from Davis and the orchestra. The first movement segues seamlessly into a dreamy Romanza. This pensive movement is poetically done. The finale also follows without a break. It falls into two sections: a fugue followed by an alla Tedesca section. Chandos helpfully place each of these sections on separate tracks. The soloists really drive the fugue forward; there’s fire in the performance. The waltz-like alla Tedesca also comes off very well while the wonderfully tranquil coda brings a conclusion that’s full of repose. The Chandos recording balances the two pianos and the orchestra extremely well. This very fine performance should win new friends for a work that is something of a Cinderella among the composer’s works.

This is a most desirable disc. Performances and engineering are first rate, as are the notes by Stephen Connock. Unfortunate circumstances dictated that it took a while for Chandos to complete their SACD cycle of Vaughan Williams symphonies but it’s been worth the wait.

John Quinn

Previous review: Brian Wilson

 

 




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