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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Serenade to Music for Four Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra (1938) [14:29]
Concerto for Oboe and Strings in A minor (1944) [20:06]
Flos Campi for Solo Viola, Small Chorus and Small Orchestra (1924-25) [21:01]
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in C Major (1926-31) [26:42]
Carla Huhtanen (soprano), Emily D’Angelo (mezzo-soprano), Lawrence Wiliford (tenor), Tyler Duncan (baritone)
Louis Lortie (piano)
Teng Li (viola)
Sarah Jeffrey (oboe)
Elmer Iseler Singers
Toronto Symphony Orchestra/Peter Oundjian
rec. 2017, Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto, Canada

This recording was made as part of the celebrations of Peter Oundjian’s fourteenth year as chief conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, so he has still some way to go before he reaches his golden jubilee, the event for which the Serenade to Music was composed. It was requested as a celebration of Henry Wood’s fifty years as a conductor, and he had requested a work for sixteen singers and orchestra. It was Vaughan Williams who suggested using the sixteen singers, all of whom had starred under Wood’s baton, as soloists. The composer soon realised that engaging sixteen soloists for such a short work would be prohibitive for many concert halls, and he therefore made various arrangements for differing forces. The one for four soloists, as recorded here, became one of the most performed. This is, however, not my favourite version. The original lineup, their initials in the published score, is still the one to beat, especially as each of the soloists colours their line in so many different hues. Even so, it is a very nice performance of this version. The orchestral playing is super and the solo violin that heralds the opening of the piece is excellent. This is an important role in this work, one that I have always thought should be a named part. I can only imagine that it is one of the orchestra concertmasters. The soloists are all in fine voice. The only drawback is the tenor, Lawrence Wiliford, whom I find to have a tone slightly typical of French tenors. In this most quintessential of English works, his tone seems a little off, although it is growing on me the more I play the disc.

The Oboe Concerto was composed for and dedicated to the English oboist Leon Goossens. It was composed during the height of the V1 threat to London and for this reason the Proms season was curtailed. The premiere, therefore, took place in the oboist’s home town of Liverpool on the 30th September 1944. It is fitting, therefore, that my favourite recording is by the RLPO and their principal oboist, Jonathan Small, under Vernon Handley (CD-EMX 2179). The composition of the Concerto was begun directly after the composer had completed his Fifth Symphony. Like the Fifth, this work does not imply any of the perils or hardship that the people of England were enduring. The work is pleasant, even bucolic. It harks back to England’s green and pleasant land during happier times. This recording is slower than Jonathan Small’s by nearly two and a half minutes, due to its longer outer movements. Not that one notices, as this is a very pleasing performance, with both Sarah Jeffrey and the strings of the orchestra in excellent form. Whilst it does not quite topple my favourite (I am a Liverpudlian born and bred after all), it is not far behind, and it eclipses other recordings.

I really like this performance of Flos Campi, the earliest work on this disc, for solo viola, wordless eight-part chorus and orchestra. Divided into six movements played without a break, it represents some of Vaughan Williams’s most passionate writing. The title literally means ‘flower of the fields’, but as the composer stated these flowers were not the buttercups and daisies of the English meadow, but that he was “the Rose of Sharon, and the Lily of the Valleys” as depicted in the Song of Songs. He is therefore stating that this is the telling of a love story between a man and a woman. Each movement is headed with a line of text from the Latin Vulgate, which are helpfully provided here with their English translations. This is passionate music indeed, and here it receives a performance to match, one that stands the scrutiny of comparison with its rivals.

The final work on the disc has had something of a troubled past. Originally composed for one piano, the Piano Concerto in C proved difficult for its dedicatee Harriet Cohen, whose hands were seen as too small to span the notes. For this reason a version for two pianos was arranged. It was in this version that I first came to know the work. This was in the performance by Vitya Vronsky and Victor Babin with the LPO under Boult (CDM 567220 2), a disc that couples the Concerto with Job. It is not difficult to understand why: the Fuga chromatica final movement sounds as if it has jumped straight out of the Masque. Listening to Howard Shelley’s recording (SRCD.211), I find that Vernon Handley brings the link between the Concerto and Job to the fore a little more. He makes more of its connections to make a more dramatic rendition of the work. His recording is slightly slower than this present one, but the less dramatic reading does not diminish its attractiveness as a performance in any way. There is certainly nothing to choose between the soloists: Louis Lortie and Shelley are both on impressive form.

Despite my misgivings about the Serenade to Music, the performances are very good throughout. The orchestral playing is exceptionally fine. These are engaging and enjoyable performances of masterpieces of English music – an ideal disc for anyone seeking the works presented here, and a must for fans of Vaughan Williams in particular.
Stuart Sillitoe


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