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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Serenade to Music: Orchestral Version, arranged by the composer. [11:12]
Five Variants of ‘Dives and Lazarus’ for strings and harp [11:59]
The Lark Ascending [14:23]
Fantasia on Greensleeves [4:47]
English Folk Song Suite (orch Gordon Jacob) [10:18]
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis [16:19]
James Ehnes (violin), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Manze
rec. 2017/19, Philharmonic Hall and The Friary, Liverpool
ONYX 4212 [69:23]

I sometimes wonder what passes through a record company’s mind when planning a new CD of music by a popular composer. This thought has been prompted by the content of this latest RVW CD from Onyx, featuring Andrew Manze and the RLPO. It has one rarity – the orchestral version of the wondrous Serenade to Music in a rarely recorded arrangement by the composer. The remainder of this disc is standard fare for an RVW ‘short pieces’ compilation, and I for one could well do without the Fantasia on Greensleeves and the English Folk Song Suite (orch Gordon Jacob), especially if they were replaced with a real rarity, such as the 22-minute Old King Cole ballet. To do so would have extended the length of the disk to about 76 minutes, and would have made the disk a far more attractive proposition to those of us who rate Vaughan Williams so highly, and want to explore the full range of his output.

As it is, all but 11 minutes of the disc’s content live in a highly competitive field, so the question must be, how do the performances and recording fare?

The first thing to say is that the recording is absolutely superb, and allows the string-based textures of the Tallis Fantasia and Five Variants to blossom wonderfully. The recording has a rich, but not cavernous acoustic that creates a wonderful bloom enveloping the orchestra. Never, I suspect, have the strings of the RLPO been so well served on disk. The Tallis Fantasia has been recorded many times, sometimes by chamber orchestras, but here we have the full string band who support the glorious musical architecture, whilst never swamping the string quartet. Is it any wonder that Herbert Howells was awed when he attended the first performance, as I too was awed when, as a student of 18 in 1971, I first heard the piece on a crackly LP. Here, Manze skilfully guides the orchestra through the waves of string sound, large and small, leading to the exultant climax. Gosh! I am impressed. Similar comments apply to the harp balance in the Five Variants; nicely audible, but not a super-gigantic instrument.

James Ehnes sounds like he thoroughly enjoys playing the Lark. My own feelings towards the piece have been somewhat blunted by over-exposure, but there is no doubt that this is a lovely recorded performance. One can easily understand just why it has become so popular.

I seem to be in a minority in that I really like the composer’s own purely orchestral arrangement of the Serenade to Music. Most reviewers tend to utter faint praise when comparing it to the original vocal/choral piece. I, on the other hand, find its rhapsodic flow to be utterly beguiling. I have one other version – that by Vernon Handley and the LPO in a 1983 Chandos recording. Handley is somewhat brisker, knocking about 30 seconds off the overall timing in comparison with Manze, and the 36 years between the dates shows in the slightly bright edge in the Chandos string sound. This new recording is now my choice for this particular arrangement.

Whilst I have been a tad dismissive of Greensleeves, I freely admit that it sounds luxurious here, and the tune is so wonderful that Manze manages to make it sound fresh. Finally, the English Folk Song Suite bounces along in its jolly fashion, and this version is as good as any.

To summarise, this is a distinguished and strongly recommended issue, and the Onyx engineers have served the orchestra (and my ears) extremely well indeed. The booklet notes are by Lewis Foreman, presented in English and German and are suitably informative.

Jim Westhead

Previous reviews: Simon Thompson ~ Brian Wilson

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