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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Serenade to Music (1938) [14:29]
Concerto for Oboe and Strings in A minor (1944) [20:06]
Flos Campi (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

One day, in an idle moment, I’ll work out the percentage of Vaughan Williams works that end quietly. He marked the words a niente over the closing bars of many of his works, the most notable and touching example being those of his ninth, and final, symphony. At its first performance in 1933, the Piano Concerto ended with a bang. Indeed, much of the performance seems to have been somewhat dramatic, as the solo part demanded greater physical strength than Harriet Cohen was able to provide, not to mention bigger hands, rather strange given that it was for Cohen that the concerto was written. Other problems were also apparent: Vaughan Williams gave the conductor, Adrian Boult, “carte blanche” to reduce any scoring that might overpower the solo instrument. The work’s troubled history led to a decision to rearrange it for two pianos and orchestra (Joseph Cooper undertook this work and gives an amusing account of it in Stephen Connock’s book Toward the Sun Rising: Ralph Vaughan Williams Remembered, Albion Music, 2018.) Vaughan Williams then took the opportunity to compose a new ending, so that this work, with its beautifully scored closing C major chord, pianissimo, joins those others that end a niente.

The Chandos catalogue already boasts a superb performance of the Piano Concerto by Howard Shelley, coupled with the Ninth Symphony in Bryden Thompson’s rather forgotten yet quite brilliant series. Canadian pianist Louis Lortie is outstanding in this new performance. A characteristic of the work is that much of the musical material is given to the orchestra – Vaughan Williams himself referred to the work as his “orchestra and pianoforte concerto”. The Chandos engineers gave Shelley slightly more prominence than the later team have done for Lortie, but really there is little to choose between these two magnificent performances of a rather troubling – and troublesome – work.

Vaughan Williams’s Oboe Concerto also ends quietly, and that at the close of a finale that has alternated between lively, dancing music and something much more pensive and serene, close in atmosphere to many passages from the near-contemporary Fifth Symphony. It is an underrated work that deserves to be performed much more frequently. Those who hear only pastoral piping are missing the point. They should pay keen attention to this beautiful performance by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s principal oboe, Sarah Jeffrey. She is absolutely in sympathy with the music, produces a most pleasing tone, and is in complete command of the work’s technical demands.

Serenade to Music was originally composed for sixteen solo voices. The composer conceived the work for particular singers whose solo passages are marked with their initials in the score, but he was always keen to adapt works in order to secure performances. This performance uses just four soloists alongside the admirable Elmer Iseler Singers, a group of twenty or so voices. Thus, the soprano, for example, sings solo passages that were originally assigned to four different singers and, no doubt, tailored to each particular voice. I expected to miss the change of vocal quality from one phrase to another, but in the end this didn’t bother me at all, perhaps because the soloists are so distinguished. Peter Oundjian’s pacing of the work is ideal, and the sounds he coaxes from his excellent orchestra are as ravishing as they should be in this work.

Both Serenade to Music and Flos Campi can justly be described as unique works. Vaughan Williams, a man of great humour, was reportedly delighted to learn that orchestral musicians had re-baptised the piece “Camp Flossie” – along the lines of that short masterpiece by Beethoven, the Eggbound Overture. None the less, the work strikes me as his most personal and private expression of sentiments he was unable, or unwilling, to put into words. How did he feel, too, when Holst, his closest friend and musical confidante, confessed disappointment, saying that he “couldn’t get hold of it”? But who can “get hold of it”? You can follow Hubert Foss, quoted in Stephen Connock’s excellent booklet note, and take the it as an “exquisite study in pure sound”, and if you do, you will be both satisfied and right, because that is certainly what it is. But it won’t do as an explanation, as there is, clearly, much more to the matter than that.

I have never heard Flos Campi live, and I imagine it must be extremely difficult to establish the right atmosphere in the antiseptic atmosphere of a concert hall. Matthew Best’s performance on Hyperion is a most moving one that I never expected to be surpassed, but this new reading is just as fine and, in some respects, I prefer it. One is struck from the start by the care that has been taken over instrumental balance, and that quality is confirmed as, one by one, the orchestra and the choir take their places in the overall texture. Teng Li is the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s principal viola player, and she plays the work as if it really means something to her. She produces a rich, nourished tone and plays the more robust passages without the slightest suggestion of roughness. Her viola really speaks, her playing richly communicative. The choir is excellent, the orchestra too, and by careful attention to Vaughan Williams’s markings, Oundjian achieves something very special.

Peter Oundjian’s work in Toronto was marked by a number of recordings of Vaughan Williams symphonies on the orchestra’s own label. Here, on Chandos, he treats us to a mouth-watering programme that more than deserves a place in any Vaughan Williams collection.

William Hedley

Previous review: Stuart Sillitoe



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