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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Sinfonia Antartica (1949-51) [41:40]
Four Last Songs (1954-58, orch. Anthony Payne, 2013) [9:48]
Concerto for two pianos and orchestra (1946)
Mari Eriksmoen (soprano)
Bergen Philharmonic Choir,
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Hélène Mercier, Louis Lortie (pianos),
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. Grieghallen, Bergen, 2017
Booklet includes English sung texts with French and German translations.

This recording of Sinfonia Antartica marks the completion of Chandos’ second Vaughan Williams symphonies cycle and the first on SACD. It is also the first recording of the work to appear for 21 years. I shall compare its immediate predecessor, from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Kees Bakels (Naxos 8.550737), Andrew Davis having made his first recording of the work just 6 months earlier. Germinating from the music RVW composed for the film Scott of the Antarctic, it’s the least symphonic and most programmatic of his symphonies. It’s also arguably the richest and most imaginative in orchestration, for which element this Chandos SACD recording proves an enhancement. RVW selected epigraphs from literature for every movement which indicate its mood. Like the work these are concerned with the pictorial and its psychological significance.

‘Prelude’, the first movement (tr. 1), is about endeavour, epitomised in the opening theme. It’s clearly a march yet from Davis, its smoothness, even a kind of serenity, is striking. Despite its gaunt melodic ascent it’s marked dolce and Davis brings to it an assurance of purpose, a gleam of vision. Bakels isn’t quite as smooth. Rather he’s grimly determined, concentrating on progression, the weight of the timpani more noticeable. Bakels is more dramatic, making more of the first climax, marked Largamente, where Davis (1:57) is more dignified. But in the immediately following passage Davis brings a more tingling appreciation of unchartered territory in the focus on xylophone, harp, piano, muted trumpets, trombones and tuba and then violins whispering in high register. Soon comes the ghostly atmosphere of solo soprano, a cheer leader for a small women’s ‘ah’ chorus, like a group of harpies, before the wind machine reminds us of the climate. Davis’ ‘harpies’ have a wan, ethereal beauty and acceptance of their circumstances; those of Bakels are more anguished, tragic figures and his sul ponticello strings’ accompaniment is more sinister. At 4:30 and a slight increase in tempo Davis brings us to a new vista, sudden strange sights in a woodwind mass and before long the whole orchestra seething. The main feeling, however, is one of adventure, whereas with Bakels the sense of danger is more dominant. A quiet fanfare from trumpets (7:45) begins the coda, with Davis a joyful celebration of completing this first stage of the journey, of having survived its first hardships, fears and temptations, which ends with exuberant affirmation of achievement. Bakels offers a more formal, firm satisfaction at success so far though one’s impression is muted because his Naxos recording, though very clear, can’t match the sheer depth of sonority of the Chandos SACD.

The second movement Scherzo (tr. 2), RVW’s epigraph tells us, is a celebration of ships and a great whale. In the Trio he depicts penguins. Davis brings an idyllic, sunny, holiday atmosphere to all of this. There’s the pride in the ship and exhilaration of the open air as in the Scherzo of A Sea Symphony, but that is sturdier and, with full chorus, very much peopled. This Scherzo is more playful, yet with teeming activity in myriad gyrating waves, with cross rhythms constantly exchanged between the sections of the orchestra, more excitingly realized by Davis notwithstanding Bakels’ precision. Yet this Scherzo also has the tranquillity of the smoothly gliding vessel. This latter is displayed by the first theme (0:39), first heard on flutes, cor anglais, clarinet and trumpet and soon taken up by strings. Bakels makes this more insistent than Davis who better realizes its grazioso marking. The second theme (1:57), the whale, appears on the lower woodwind and cellos; with Davis this is sober and majestic, Bakels’ whale is heavier and more fierce. The third theme (2:53), the penguins, is first heard on clarinets and bassoons and later trumpets and trombones. Davis makes it gawky yet comfortable in itself. Bakels’ penguins are at first nonchalant and later blasé.

The ‘Landscape’ of the third movement (tr. 3) is the bleak one of ice falls frozen down huge ravines. The opening theme on muted horns to a persistent wailing from flutes establishes the desolation. Davis’ treatment of this is more soulful where Bakels is quite smooth. A second theme, on full orchestra (3:22), from Davis establishes the awe-inspiring nature of massive and oppressive surroundings; Bakels is less spine-chilling. The response of violas and cellos is to produce a third theme (6:00), more lyrical and flowing, with violins later added, a return to the manner of the first movement’s emphasis on endeavour. Both Davis and Bakels treat this with a sense of rich resolve. Now, and what you remember most about this movement, is the appearance of fff full organ solo, like terrifyingly finding yourself on the edge of a huge, impenetrable glacier, the ends of the organ phrases backed by the frisson of the crescendo of a full orchestra, yet that same orchestra then crashes syncopated rhythms against the organ. Bakels’ organ makes a mightier impression but Davis’ orchestral response is more powerful. After this the return of the opening theme on 2 muted trumpets seems like a lament from both Davis and Bakels, more pained than the dolce marking.

The fourth movement ‘Intermezzo’ (tr. 4) brings the contrast of human love, its opening oboe theme in the original film associated with Oriana, the wife of Scott’s naturalist team member Edward Wilson. Davis enjoys the contours of the folksong-like melody as if freely breathing in the air without any atmospheric constraints while passages for solo violin and cello emphasise the personal and individual response. But at 3:26 we’re back to the reality of tolling bells and jarring offbeat chords which in the film marked the death of another team mate, Lawrence Oates, though in the Sinfonia you may remember this passage also appears in the opening movement (tr. 1, 6:22). At 3:54 here Davis’ warm treatment of the strings’ chords tries to reintroduce domesticity, and you will remember what comes next, the opening theme of the first movement which Davis presents in a pale, cold glimmer. The love theme now returns, passing sombrely through oboe, clarinet and flute before it sinks down on the cellos. Davis reveals a greater range of orchestral colour in this movement whereas Bakels emphasises the drama of the contrast of the two worlds.

The ‘Epilogue’ finale (tr. 5) uncompromisingly accepts tragedy head on. The sonorous brass fanfares of the opening theme, a cousin of that of the celebration at the end of the first movement (tr. 1, 7:46) are a due mark of achievement but there’s no disguising that Scott arrived at the South Pole only to find Amundsen’s Norwegian flag flying there, so these are the fanfares for a runner-up, and here ironically played by a Norwegian orchestra! At 0:43 comes the second theme, recently heard in the Intermezzo (tr. 4, 4:14), a variant of the opening theme of the Prelude where it was a steady advance towards achievement. In the Epilogue, at march tempo, it’s a quite brisk retreat after disappointment. When the two themes come together Davis gives us a garish picture of clinging on to celebration when it’s unwarranted but at 2:06 the quieter treatment of the second theme, varied a little again, in clarinets, bass clarinet and violas, has the dignity of philosophical acceptance so that when it returns fortissimo in the brass in its Intermezzo form, it has an heroic determination. This is halted by the return of the Intermezzo’s bells and offbeat chords and then, not heard since the opening movement, the wind machine and wordless voices. You know we have reached the coda when the Prelude’s version of the Epilogue’s second theme appears and Davis’ treatment of this Andante maestoso, smooth yet stately, restores the affirmation of achievement. Nevertheless the final sounds are those of the ‘ah’ soprano solo, now distant, women’s chorus and wind machine. In Davis’ hands it’s as if the ‘harpies’ have become pitying mourners for those who have sacrificed their lives. Bakels’ timing of this movement at 7:56 to Davis’ 9:22 for me disadvantages his interpretation. The opening is marked Alla Marcia, moderato (non troppo allegro). By paying insufficient attention to the latter element Bakels brings an unduly tetchy manner, given RVW’s epigraph’s “no cause for complaint”. The quieter treatment of the second theme lacks Davis’ nuance and its fortissimo return is ablaze with anger, while the wordless chorus sounds curiously matter-of-fact. Bakels’ Prelude theme in the coda to me sounds just sullen and even its emphatic climax is gloomy. The empathy in his ‘Ah’ soprano solo isn’t matched by the rather dispassionate chorus.

Ursula Vaughan Williams’ text of Procris, the first of the Four Last Songs, was inspired by Piero di Cosimo’s painting A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph and both contrast the glory and variety of life with the absence of life or, as the text adds, prevailing despair which amounts to the same thing. Musically, RVW contrasts the mourning descent of the opening pure melody, a recurring motif, with counterpoint depicting the vibrant and changing natural landscape. I compared the 2002 recording of RVW’s original setting for medium voice and piano by the mezzo soprano Claire-Louise Lucas and Jonathan Darnborough (Claudio CB5258-2). The opening piano descent is poignant in its bare plangency but as soon as it comes to depicting the wind, Anthony Payne’s orchestration has realized another dimension which is latent in the notes and rhythm, bringing more forward the energy and emotion, while sensitively evoking RVW’s orchestral palette. Payne’s opening descent on clarinet is beautiful and anguished before the voice tells us this is a person’s pain. The gentle wind has the quintessential, mystical aura of RVW’s strings. Roderick Williams delivers the largely soft narrative clearly, like a furtive, reverent observation yet also with empathy. I compared the 2015 recording with Payne’s orchestration by the mezzo soprano Jennifer Johnston with the BBC Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins (Albion Records ALBCD028). Both voice and orchestra here are more projected and emotive, but I feel Williams and Davis’ more elegiac approach is more moving.

The second song, Tired, is even more furtive, again in a respectful way, almost conspiratorial but with the warm simplicity of a lullaby. Yet a brief phrase in the accompaniment, again well assigned by Payne to clarinet, shows the deep joy at the heart of this quiet expression using a wisp of RVW’s earliest song setting, Linden Lea. This returns in the violins as they open out a sense of the world and external constraints in the central section, but also allow a fuller strings’ warmth for the close as the firelight embers and the wisp again floats over the voice.

The third song, Hands, Eyes and Heart, is a terse invocation, really a prayer, that the components of the title be the means of the lover demonstrating his love, unlike the preceding songs coming to a climax, mezzo forte on high E flat at ‘Heart’. Payne makes the strings’ accompaniment suitably warm to match the original piano’s quiet richness and Williams responds with a more glowing and fervent tone than hitherto. It all depends on how much of an incandescent quality you want. Johnston and Brabbins give you this in their more heart-on-sleeve outpouring and, timing at 1:29 in comparison with Williams and Davis’ 1:09, luxuriant Andante tranquillo emphasising the latter aspect. Incidentally, it’s stated in the original vocal score that it should be sung by a woman, presumably because RVW sent it to the baritone Keith Falkner querying if it were unsuitable for a man or too intimate for public singing. Today it could be accepted as an unintended yet moving gay song, but the thought occurs was it too personal an expression of Ursula’s love for Ralph to allow ‘him’, ‘he’ and ‘his’ to be changed to ‘her’, ‘she’ and ‘her’ for a baritone to sing?

It could be argued that the final song, Menelaus, should also not be sung by a man because the text is that of his wife, Helen, as he returns from the Trojan wars, yet it’s very much viewed from his perspective and was dedicated to and premiered by Keith Falkner. Here’s a landscape more active and gaunt than that of Procris, more atmospheric, mysterious, stark and harmonically, and from Payne orchestrally, close to Sinfonia Antartica. Again there’s a ‘climax’ on ‘heart’, this time a soft one, again on the song’s highest note, this time E natural, radiantly delivered by Williams as the experience of Helen’s greeting. Timing at 5:05 in comparison with Williams and Davis’ 4:02, Johnson and Brabbins stress the latter aspect of Andante moderato. Brabbins makes the orchestration more graphic, the demisemiquaver flourishes are more tingling. But I prefer their greater delicacy in Davis’ hands, the marking is pp and the orchestration is generally cast as a dreamlike anticipation, while at the faster tempo Williams conveys the eagerness of expectancy, sustained throughout save for the brief, cold allusion to the reality of the present overseas location.

I remember a young organist, being asked what a Toccata was, saying “It’s just a noise!” and that description could apply to some of the Toccata first movement of the Concerto for two pianos (tr. 10), the soloists being doubled to achieve a better balance with the orchestra. To begin with the pianos lead the orchestra. Davis gives us a grandiose start with a rather pompous rising procession from strings and trombones, then a more engagingly lively second element (0:18) where the orchestra punctuates the pianos’ jollity, as if cheering them on. Now comes the movement’s main contrast, RVW’s breezy folksy, shanty manner (0:35), think of Symphony 8’s scherzo, in this context the sonority quieter but the tempo a little more animated, so all is energy and joie de vivre. To be sure the brilliance of the piano writing and playing of Louis Lortie and Helène Mercier come through. At 4:15 there’s Largamente treatment of the essential melodic core followed by a cadenza for Piano 2 which more extremely contrasts slow and fast movement, spinning and hovering. I compared the 2012 recording by Duo Tal & Groethysen with the Musikkollegium Winterthur/Douglas Boyd (Sony 88725423112). Timing at 5:56 to Davis’ 6:07, Boyd takes a slightly less Moderato view of the Allegro moderato, rendering the opening more brutally resolute yet its sweep I found more convincing. His folk material is racier but thereby more scherzo like and waspish. Here I prefer Davis’ calmer enjoyment.

The theme of the second movement Romanza (tr. 11) has the Piano 1 weaving around one note in soulful meditation. Transferred to solo flute this has a colder glaze but is made more benign, a kind of blessing, by muted strings. Piano 1 now fixes its attention on a descending phrase which becomes an insistent accompaniment in the oboe to Piano 2’s repeat of the theme. Piano 1 responds by floating gently around one note in slightly longer phrases in sequences which the strings join. Then the woodwind enters with a luminous response (4:02), one of those visionary RVW interludes which leads to a more rhapsodic manner from Piano 2 and Piano 1 in turn, the latter providing a very soft, high registration final presentation of the theme. Davis gives us a relaxed yet quite eventful central movement, save the thought nags that RVW overworks his material. There’s barely any difference in timing between Davis’ 9:02 and Boyd’s 8:56, yet Boyd for me makes the movement more convincing as a progression albeit at the loss of Davis’ tranquillity. Boyd’s piano opening is more severe, the following flute more pressingly gaunt, the muted strings more eerie, yet the luminous interlude less distinctive and consolatory.

Davis makes a steady start to the Fuga Chromatica so it appears quite jolly on trombones and tuba but spikier when taken up by Piano 1 and 2 in turn, of sinuous strength and, when the orchestra joins in, irrepressible impetus. Thereafter we’re into the world of the rigour, though not the anger, of the finale of Symphony 4 and thunderous cadenza for both pianos. The Finale alla Tedesca is the fugue theme as a bouncy waltz, so Davis’ jolly start to the theme wasn’t out of kilter. The final cadenza revisits the theme and close of the slow movement, a homage to the beauty of reflection, with the fugue reduced to soft strings’ pizzicato and erased by a warm strings’ chord. I do feel the carpet has been pulled from under my feet, though Davis does this slickly enough. Timing at 4:22, in the Fuga Davis is a touch faster than Boyd’s 4:33 yet his finale’s 6:33 is a deal slower than Boyd’s 6:10. I think he has it right both times and that Boyd takes it all a bit too seriously. Davis reveals the element of banter, of entertainment and the showmanship of a swinging waltz. In the Fuga Boyd demonstrates the discourse between pianos and orchestra well but in an atmosphere of exactitude and tension, even snarling at times. His waltz is wilder, more abandoned. Lortie and Mercier reveal not just the power but the lyricism of the cadenzas, Duo Tal and Groethuysen remain stony throughout.

In sum, Davis sets a new benchmark for the recordings of all three works.

Michael Greenhalgh

Previous review: John Quinn



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