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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Concerto Grosso for String Orchestra (1950) [16:54]
Concerto for Oboe and Strings in A minor (1944) [19:57]
Concerto for Violin and String Orchestra in D major (Concerto Accademico) (1924-25) [16:49]
Concerto for Bass Tuba and Orchestra in F minor (1954) [13:12]
Two Hymn-Tune Preludes (1936) [8:19]
The Lark Ascending (1914, rev. 1920) [15:27]
Piano Concerto in C major (1926, 1930-31, rev. 1936) [25:43]
Partita for Double String Orchestra (1948) [19:43]
Toward the Unknown Region (1907) [13:19]
David Theodore (oboe); Kenneth Sillito (violin); Patrick Harrild (tuba); Michael Davis (violin); Howard Shelley (piano)
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra/Bryden Thomson
rec.1987-1990, St. Jude’s Church, London. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN9262/3 [75:45 + 74:40]

Just recently, when I reviewed the complete set of Bryden Thomson’s cycle of Vaughan Williams symphonies, I referenced this present set. With one small exception – the ‘Greensleeves’ Fantasia, which was one of the couplings for the Eighth Symphony – this two-CD set brings together all the shorter items that were coupled with the symphonies when each was originally issued.

The Concerto Grosso for String Orchestra was the ‘filler’ for Thomson’s account of A London Symphony (CHAN 8629). VW composed it for the 21st anniversary of the Rural Music Schools Association and, with an eye to the mixed abilities of RMSA pupils he divided the forces into three groups: ‘Concertino’ for the best players; ‘Tutti’ for semi-skilled; and ‘Ad Lib’ for beginners. When Sir Adrian Boult conducted the premiere in the Royal Albert Hall some 400 players participated. VW’s division of his playing forces implies no condescension; rather, his aim is inclusivity. Such is the skill of the writing that the listener shouldn’t be too conscious of mixed abilities during the five short movements. The first movement ‘Intrada’ is a grand opening statement and here the LSO strings produce a big, full sound to which the Chandos engineers do full justice. VW might have had to make allowances for the abilities of some players but there’s no compromise in the lyricism of the third movement, ‘Sarabande’. The concluding ‘March and Reprise’ is sprightly before VW revisits the music of the ‘Intrada’.

The Oboe Concerto was, very appropriately, originally the coupling for Thomson’s account of A Pastoral Symphony (CHAN 8594). The concerto was written for Léon Goossens. Here, the soloist is David Theodore, who gives a very fine performance indeed. The first of the three movements, ‘Rondo Pastoral’, finds VW in his most bewitching pastoral vein. Theodore’s playing is agile and he’s just as convincing in the passages where the instrument’s cantabile side is exploited. The central ‘Minuet and Musette’ is deftly done by soloist and orchestra. The last movement begins as a lively Scherzo with plenty of display opportunities. However, the movement takes a decidedly different turn between 3:09 and 6:55. In these pages the music has a meditative calm and the performance is most poetic. Thereafter, the music briefly picks up speed again but subdued lyricism wins the day and the work ends quietly. This is an enchanting concerto and the present performance is fully worthy of it.

The Violin Concerto, originally entitled Concerto Accademico, also requires a string orchestra. When first issued, this performance was coupled with the Fourth Symphony (CHAN 8633). The soloist is Kenneth Sillito, who will be familiar to many through his work with the English Chamber Orchestra and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. In his notes Max Harrison is surely right to suggest that the Concerto is a homage by VW to Bach. That’s especially true of the busy, neo-classical first movement. Harrison says that the string writing is “drier than usual” for VW; perhaps that’s why I’ve never been bowled over by the work, or at least by its outer movements. The first movement receives a suitably bracing and athletic performance here. The central Adagio – tranquillo is lovely; the music has a timeless quality. Sillito is excellent here and Thomson ensures that the accompaniment is beautifully shaped and shaded. The energetic finale is taken very swiftly. It’s something of a surprise when VW’s helter-skelter music achieves a short, quiet conclusion.

The Tuba Concerto was originally coupled with the Sixth Symphony (CHAN 8740), which is not inappropriate. In this short work VW takes the trouble to reveal in a most sympathetic fashion aspects of the tuba that will come as a revelation to many listeners. Here, the soloist is Patrick Harrild who retired in 2017 after nearly 30 years as principal tuba with the LSO. He succeeded John Fletcher in that post; Fletcher had recorded the same concerto with the LSO and André Previn in the early 1970s (review). Some 20 years later Patrick Harrild made this excellent recording. In a speech on the day of Harrild’s last LSO concert the orchestra’s chairman, Gareth Davies referred to Harrild’s “conviction that the Tuba can and should make essentially a musical, vocal sound” and that conviction is readily apparent here, especially during the central ‘Romanza’. Can the tuba be a poetic, lyrical instrument? Yes, answers Vaughan Williams – and Patrick Harrild – in this beguiling movement. Harrild’s playing is expertly controlled and, with a suitably light touch, he makes his tuba sing. In the first movement, VW shows us that a tuba can play dancing music and in the compound-time passages the Sixth Symphony comes readily to mind. The rollicking rondo finale finds Harrild playing in a particularly nimble fashion. This is a highly successful account of a surprising and very pleasing concerto.

The Two Hymn-Tune Preludes were among the couplings for the Eighth Symphony (CHAN 8828). These gentle little pieces for small orchestra were first heard in Hereford Cathedral in September 1936 – at the Three Choirs festival, I imagine. The first is a prelude on the tune Eventide, which we sing to the words of Abide with me. VW’s prelude is tranquil and dreamy with solo oboe well to the fore. The second prelude is on the tune Dominus Regit Me, which will be familiar as a melody for the hymn The King of Love my Shepherd is. With prominent solos for cello and violin at the start, this little composition is, like its companion, tranquil and thoughtful.

The Lark Ascending was originally coupled with the Fifth Symphony (CHAN 8554). The performance benefits from the presence of Michael Davis as soloist. Davis, who has had a distinguished career, not least as leader of several front-rank orchestras, was Leader of the LSO from 1979 to 1986; so, the sessions for this recording, in April 1987, would have taken place just after he stepped down from that post. Davis is excellent in portraying the bird in flight in the rhapsodic opening and when the main theme of the piece arrives, his playing is rapturous. Thomson gives his soloist excellent support. The folk-like central section is nicely done and in the last two or three minutes of the piece Davis is most poetic as the lark gradually rises into the distant sky, away from our ears and eyes. This is an excellent performance.

The Piano Concerto in C major first appeared with the Ninth Symphony (CHAN 8941). Perhaps that’s fitting, since both works are unjustly neglected in VW’s output - the symphony especially so. I think this was Howard Shelley’s second recording of the work. He also recorded it for Lyrita with Vernon Handley and though I don’t know the date of that recording, which I’ve not heard, my colleague Colin Clarke, in his review of it referred to a “remake” with Thomson so I infer that the present recording, made in November 1990, came second. The concerto, which in 1946 was made into an alternative version for two pianos, is a curious work and it’s never really caught on. The first of its three movements uses the piano in a very percussive fashion – it sounds to me at times like Bartók with an English accent. The Chandos recording captures to excellent effect the bright and often very full orchestral writing; the engineers also balance the piano very successfully. The performance is exciting and intense. The central Romanza takes the concerto into a very different world with a good deal of very delicate writing, both for the piano and for the orchestra. Max Harrison rightly reminds us of VW’s studies with Ravel. I rather think the French master would have approved especially of the outer sections of this movement; VW builds the movement to a warm, characteristic climax before allowing the music to subside to the hushed state in which things began. The reverie is rudely shattered by the attacca start of the bi-partite finale – Chandos helpfully place each of the two sections on a separate track. The first part of the finale is a fugue in which the writing is even more angular than – and as potent as – anything in the Fourth Symphony. (It’s surely not coincidental that the revision of this movement was done in 1930-31, not long before the symphony was written.) Shelley is terrific here and in the big cadenza-like passage that leads into the second half of the movement, the Finale alla Tedesca. Here, he’s equally virtuosic and the Chandos sound is once again a big asset, both in the tutti passages and, equally, in the cadenza in which material from the first two movements is recalled. As the cadenza draws to a close Shelley is quietly joined by the orchestra for a short, subdued end to the work. The notes describe the conclusion as “a tutti ending that is bare, hard, brief.” That’s completely at odds with what we actually hear and I suspect that Shelley and Thomson used the ending from the 1946 two-piano version, which I believe Shelley used on his Lyrita recording. The concerto is a Cinderella among VW’s orchestral works but it’s hard to imagine better advocacy for it than in this recording.

The Partita for Double String Orchestra, originally harnessed to the Eighth Symphony (CHAN 8828), is, I admit, a work that I’ve never found it easy to engage with. I don’t know why that should be so since VW’s customary skill in writing for strings is readily apparent. Perhaps the material isn’t quite as memorable as in some of his other string works? It’s laid out for two string groups of different sizes but I don’t find the differentiation between the two groups all that easy to hear on this recording. Maybe that’s not the fault of the artists or engineers; perhaps it’s just the way VW wrote for his forces. The third of the four movements is an Intermezzo entitled ‘Homage to Henry Hall’. Apparently, the music includes references to Here’s to the nest time, the signature tune of the famous dance orchestra leader. I confess I’m not familiar with the original tune so I can’t pick up the allusions. However, I can pick up the references to the Fifth and Sixth symphonies and to Pilgrim’s Progress that VW wove into the Partita’s finale.

The set ends with Toward the Unknown Region. This originally partnered Sinfonia Antartica (CHAN 8796). Sensibly, the opportunity was taken to record the work in June 1989 when the London Symphony Chorus was already on hand to record VW’s other great and virtually contemporaneous Walt Whitman work, A Sea Symphony. Thomson does Toward the Unknown Region well. I wondered if he might display the propensity to expansive tempi that were present at times in his account of A Sea Symphony but he paces the shorter work well. He and the performers achieve good mystery at the start and that suppressed tension is maintained, as is forward momentum. As they did in the recording of the symphony, the engineers achieve a good balance between choir and orchestra. The London Symphony Chorus sings well, offering suitable fervour in their singing at ‘Then we burst forth’ and in the pages that follow. Thomson builds the performance skilfully until ‘O joy! O fruit of all!’ when the ecstasy in the music is well conveyed. This satisfying performance is a fine conclusion to this compilation.

I enjoyed this set very much indeed. All the performances are excellent – in the concerted works there’s a top-class roster of soloists. I wasn’t surprised that the engineering was as excellent as it was for the symphonies – the same recording venue was used and most if not all the sessions were linked to sessions for the symphonies. It’s very valuable to have these performances conveniently gathered together and it also means that there’s no danger of the individual works being overshadowed by individual symphonies. Max Harrison’s notes are useful.

As was the case in the symphonies, Bryden Thomson is a skilled and sympathetic guide to VW’s orchestral music.

John Quinn

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