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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Norfolk Rhapsody No 1 in E minor (1906) [11:48]
In the Fen Country, Symphonic Impression (1904, rev 1905, 1907, 1935) [17:35]
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910, rev 1913 & 1919) [16:10]
Five Variants of ‘Dives and Lazarus’ (1939) [13:29]
Fantasia on ‘Greensleeves’ (arr. Ralph Green) (1934) [4:31]
The Lark Ascending (1914, rev. 1920) [15:31]
Michael Davis (violin)
London Philharmonic Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra/Bryden Thomson
rec. 1986-1989, All Saints’ Church, Tooting; St Jude’s, London
CHANDOS CHAN9775 [79:26]

This compilation of orchestral works nicely complements Bryden Thomson’s cycle of the Vaughan Williams symphonies, which I reviewed recently. The two items in which the LSO plays were ‘fillers’ on individual releases of the symphonies. The ‘Greensleeves’ Fantasia was one of the couplings for Thomson’s account of the Eighth Symphony (CHAN 8828). The Lark Ascending appeared with the Fifth Symphony (CHAN 8554). Subsequently, Chandos gathered all the ‘fillers’ together on a two-disc set (CHAN9262/3) and the present performance of The Lark Ascending was part of that collection (review). For reasons of space the ‘Greensleeves’ Fantasia was missing from that set.

The Norfolk Rhapsody opens proceedings and at once we hear a lovely, atmospheric opening; the husky viola solo is most appealing. The rich Chandos sound conveys the full orchestral passages very well and, in addition, the hushed passages are successfully recorded. VW based this Rhapsody on two Norfolk tunes. The second of them is a lively one and when it makes its appearance (6:28) Thomson ensures that the music has a good spring in its step; this episode is played with a suitable amount of dash. I enjoyed this sympathetic performance of the Rhapsody very much

Annotator Peter Lamb comments that In the Fen Country was VW’s first orchestral score. I’m not sure that statement is strictly accurate because in his definitive book The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1964) Michael Kennedy lists a Bucolic Suite for orchestra, which was first performed in 1902. In addition, VW was engaged in the Three Impressions for Orchestra between 1902 and 1907 (review). However, In the Fen Country is certainly the earliest orchestral work that has survived in the repertoire. Though, like the Norfolk Rhapsody, it was heavily influenced by VW’s immersion in folk song, this ‘Symphonic Impression’ is much more impressionistic, I think, than the Norfolk Rhapsody. It’s also a more substantial piece – and I’m not just thinking of the respective lengths of the two pieces. Peter Lamb rightly draws attention to the “imaginative” scoring but he also reminds us that the final revision of the work, in 1935, concerned the orchestration. I wonder how significant an overhaul the scoring received at that time when VW had the additional experience of writing for the orchestra over some three decades. The present performance is a very good one. The plaintive cor anglais solo at the outset augurs well and I wasn’t disappointed by what follows. The LPO plays very well for Thomson. Once again, the excellent recorded sound is a great asset. I admired this performance.

Good though those first two pieces are, they have to stand next to a work of undoubted genius: the ‘Tallis’ Fantasia. I think there’s a factual error in the notes. Reference is made to a London performance by Beecham in 1909, preceding the Three Choirs Festival unveiling of the work in 1910. I don’t think there’s any doubt that it was in Gloucester Cathedral in 1910 that this masterpiece first saw the light of day – as Michael Kennedy’s aforementioned book confirms. I wonder if there was confusion with In the Fen Country which Beecham premiered in London in February 1909? One of the great achievements of this score is the use VW makes of three separate string groups: the main string choir; a solo quartet, usually drawn from the principals of the main orchestra; and a second smaller group of strings. I have never forgotten a performance in Gloucester Cathedral in 2016 by the Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra in which the small string group was placed on the organ screen, above and behind the main group of players. The spatial effect thereby achieved was magical (review). In practice, it’s not often possible to achieve such an effect in a concert but it can be done in a recording. That happens here, and when the smaller group is heard by itself for the first time (4:07) the distancing of the sound is brilliantly achieved. Throughout this performance Bryden Thomson and the Chandos engineers convey a fine sense of perspectives. The solo quartet (from 6:05) is also suitably differentiated. This is often a strongly projected performance – the climax around 11:00 is passionate – yet it’s equally successful in the subtleties of the work. Thomson leads a fine performance and recording does it full justice.

The later Five Variants of ‘Dives and Lazarus’ is, as Peter Lamb justly observes, “clearly from the same brooding yet luminous pen [that composed the ‘Tallis’ Fantasia].” To the string orchestra that we heard in the ‘Tallis’ Fantasia VW made the telling addition of a harp. The tune is so very English – though, as we’re reminded in the notes, there are Irish and Scottish versions too. It’s a sturdy, dependable tune but, as VW proves, it’s a melody that is open to inventive treatment. The variants flow seamlessly from one to the next until we arrive at the fifth and final variant, which sounds sumptuous here (10:44). At the start of the tranquil coda (11:41) the solo cellist plays eloquently. Thomson does this piece well, ably supported by the LPO.

For the last two items on the programme it’s the LSO in the spotlight. The short Fantasia on ‘Greensleeves’ is a slight but pleasing piece. The performance of The Lark Ascending is also available in another compilation (CHAN9262/3). As I indicated when appraising that set, Michael Davis is a fine soloist and the orchestral support from Thomson and the LSO is on the same high level.

Even if you already have that set of mainly concerted works, I think investment also in this single-disc compilation is fully justified. There’s only one work, The Lark Ascending, which is common to both. The performances on this present disc are all very good indeed and the Chandos recordings, though at least thirty years old, don’t show their age at all. This is a most attractive compilation and, as I said at the start, a very worthwhile complement to Bryden Thomson’s other VW recordings for the label. I’m glad I’ve been able to catch up with these recordings belatedly because they confirm that Bryden Thomson was a Vaughan Williams conductor of no little stature.

There’s only one other VW disc by him that we haven’t previously considered on MusicWeb International. That’s a coupling of Dona Nobis Pacem and the Five Mystical Songs (CHAN 8590).

John Quinn

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