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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Albion’s Journey

This CD has been issued to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society. It can be enjoyed on two levels. On one level, it is a sampler of some of the more recent albums issued by Albion Records – though a few items are new to CD. We’ve reviewed quite a number of the discs in question and in those cases I’ve included a link to the full review in the Contents List. You can also regard the disc as a portrait of VW. Of course, it’s not a complete portrait by any means: the symphonies are unrepresented for example, and there’s only one piece that dates from after 1943. However, there is sufficient to give us a good feel for both the man and the composer. The spoken extracts, taken from BBC broadcasts, help enormously in that regard, even if they are brief.

Among the spoken extracts I’d particularly commend the little vignette by Sir Michael Tippett in which, with characteristic honesty, he laments the fact that he scorned VW’s music when he (Tippett) was young. He then goes on to pay a very warm personal tribute to VW. Herbert Howells stresses the humanity and generous nature of his friend and fellow composer while Roy Douglas, who gave so much practical help to VW towards the end of his career, gives us a brief insight into the composer’s way of working.

As for the music, one item that is new to disc is The Robin's Nest. It’s a tiny miniature written by VW at the age of six and it’s the earliest surviving composition of his that is known. It’s short indeed – though it’s played twice, the track lasts a mere 0:32 – but it’s good that the music can be heard for archival interest.

The next few tracks that follow are pleasing and well crafted even if they don’t offer what we would now regard as the authentic voice of VW. Burley Heath is one of the earliest examples of an orchestral work, albeit the scoring was not completed by VW. It’s a pleasant little piece but hearing it we may marvel at the huge leap forward that VW would then take as an orchestral composer within less than 10 years. The Last Invocation is a vocal duet which hasn’t really cast off the shadows of Victorian England; actually, the chief point of interest lies in the violin obbligato, winningly played by Thomas Gould.

We begin to hear the authentic voice of Vaughan Williams, I think, with Smile O Voluptuous Cool-Breath'd Earth. In this connection, it may not be without significance that this is a Whitman setting, Anthony Payne has orchestrated it very skilfully. What makes the listener sit up and take notice, though, is the ecstatic vocal line, here marvellously delivered by Roderick Williams. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that Whitman evoked such a response from VW quite early on in his career.

Folksong became a key element in VW‘s compositional DNA at an early stage and it was intelligent programme planning to place a folksong setting on either side of some spoken comments on the subject by the composer himself. Both songs are shrewdly chosen and they’re fine songs, especially the robust A Farmer's Boy, which is English to its core. William Vann leads excellent performances. Dirge for Fidele is a rather lovely setting for upper voices and piano of Shakespeare’s famous lines ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun’. The performance by Les Sirčnes is lovely.

Several of the tracks remind us that fine music is buried in significant scores that are neglected and, dare one say, perhaps a little unfashionable these days. The 1928 opera The Poisoned Kiss is a case in point. There’s a sparkling recording conducted by the much-missed Richard Hickox (review) but otherwise you’re unlikely to hear it nowadays – the libretto is so dated, for one thing. It’s good, therefore, that Adrian Williams extracted some of the plums from the score and arranged them for solo voice or duet with piano. All of these are on the Purer than Pearl album and the two that have been selected here should whet your appetite for more.

Another rarely heard work within which is concealed some choice VW is his choral work Epithalamion (1957). This setting of words by Edmund Spencer (1552/3 – 1599) was a reworking of a 1938 Masque entitled The Bridal Day. The 1938 score is of special interest not just for musical reasons but also because it was the first collaboration between VW and a young poet named Ursula Wood. Epithalamion was recorded by Sir David Willcocks (review) but The Bridal Day languished in total obscurity until Albion brought out a two-disc set in 2015 which included both scores. I don’t believe we’ve ever reviewed the set but I have it in my own collection. On this present disc we can sample a short extract from The Bridal Day. The complete performance, and that of Epithalamion, is well worth hearing by all admirers of the composer. So, too, is ‘Procris', one of the Four Last Songs which were composed in VW’s last year. Anthony Payne orchestrated the set with great understanding for an Albion recording and here ‘Procris’ is eloquently sung by Jennifer Johnston.

There’s a fitting close to the compilation. We hear VW talking about Sibelius and in his remarks he compares the determined compositional road followed by the Finnish master to the often arduous journey of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim. VW’s long obsession with Bunyan’s morality was to find full expression in his masterly The Pilgrim’s Progress (1951), a score which might be said to have followed as long and winding a road as that of the Pilgrim himself. Along the way there were a number of what one might term spin off’s, one of which was the incidental music to a radio adaptation of Pilgrim’s Progress by Edward Sackville-West, which was broadcast by the BBC in September 1943. John Gielgud took the part of Christian (the name given to the Pilgrim) and Sir Adrian Boult conducted the music. The extract included here comes almost at the very end – only Bunyan’s epilogue follows – as Christian, accompanied by Hopeful, reaches the Heavenly City. Neither the sound, nor the performance, is flawless but the great hymn tune ‘York’ provides a majestic conclusion to the journey of Christian/Pilgrim and, on this disc, it’s a stirring end to this short survey of the life and work of Ralph Vaughan Williams.

This is a rewarding compilation which opens windows onto some of the less familiar music by Vaughan Williams.

John Quinn

1. The Robin's Nest (1878)
Frank Ericson (piano)
2. Summum Bonum (1891)
Nicky Spence (tenor) / William Vann (piano)
From ALBCD029 - Purer than Pearl
3. Vaughan Williams Talking about Parry
4. Three Vocal Valses: ‘Winter’ (1896)
Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea / William Vann (piano)
From ALBCD034 – Earth and Sky
5. Burley Heath (1902-1903), completed by James Francis Brown
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra / Paul Daniel
From ALBCD016 – The Solent
6. The Last Invocation (1904)
Mary Bevan (soprano) / Johnny Herford (baritone) / Thomas Gould (violin) / William Vann (piano)
From ALBCD029 - Purer than Pearl
7. Smile O Voluptuous Cool-Breath'd Earth (1908)
Orchestrated by Anthony Payne
Roderick Williams (baritone) / BBC Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins
From ALBCD028 – Discoveries
8. Herbert Howells Talking about RVW
9. Oh, Fair the Fruits of Leto Blow (1911-1912)
Heather Lowe (mezzo soprano) / Joyful Company of Singers / Britten Sinfonia / Alan Tongue
From ALBCD033 – Beyond my Dream
10. The Twelve Apostles (a folk song arrangement published in 1919)
Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea / Thomas Stoddart (baritone) / Hugh Rowlands (organ) / William Vann
From ALBCD035 – A Vaughan Williams Christmas
11. Vaughan Williams Talking about Folk Song
12. A Farmer's Boy (a folk song arrangement published in 1921)
Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea / William Vann
From ALBCD034 – Earth and Sky
13. Dirge for Fidele (1922)
Les Sirčnes Female Chamber Choir / Andrew Nunn (Director) / Fionnuala Ward (piano)
From ALBCD030 – Sing Willow
14. Roy Douglas Talking about Vaughan Williams
15. Wither's Rocking Hymn (1928)
Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea / Eloise Irving (soprano) / Edward Hughes (tenor) / Hugh Rowlands (organ) / William Vann
From ALBCD035 – A Vaughan Williams Christmas
16. The Running Set, arr. for two pianos by Vally Lasker and Helen Bidder (1933)
Goldstone and Clemmow (two pianos)
From ALBCD031 – Music for Two Pianos
17. Suite for Viola and Pianoforte I. Prelude (1934)
Martin Outram (viola) / Julian Rolton (piano)
From ALBCD036 – Viola Fantasia
18. ‘Dear Love’ (from The Poisoned Kiss, 1928)
Arranged from the opera by Adrian Williams
Nicky Spence (tenor) / William Vann (piano)
From ALBCD029 - Purer than Pearl
19. ‘Love Breaks all Rules’ (from The Poisoned Kiss, 1928)
Arranged from the opera by Adrian Williams
Jennifer Johnston (mezzo soprano) / William Vann (piano)
From ALBCD029 - Purer than Pearl
20. The Bridal Day, Scene VI (extract) (1938)
Philip Smith (Baritone) / Joyful Company of Singers / Britten Sinfonia Septet / Alan Tongue
From ALBCD025 – Fair Child of Beauty
21. Michael Tippett Talking about RVW
22. Four Last Songs: ‘Procris’ (1958)
Orchestrated by Anthony Payne
Jennifer Johnston (mezzo soprano) / BBC Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins
From ALBCD028 – Discoveries
23. Vaughan Williams Talking about Sibelius
24. Christian And Hopeful Meet the Heavenly Hosts (1943)
From a radio play of ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’, broadcast in September 1943
Margaret Godley (soprano) / Margaret Rolfe (contralto) / BBC Chorus / BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sir Adrian Boult
From ALBCD023 – The Pilgrim’s Progress, complete radio play with incidental music

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