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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Serenade to Music
(version for orchestra) [11:12]
Five Variants of 'Dives and Lazarus' [11:59]
The Lark Ascending [14:23]
Fantasia on 'Greensleeves' [4:47]
English Folk Song Suite [10:28]
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis [16:19]
James Ehnes (violin)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Manze
rec. 2017/2019, The Friary, Liverpool; Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool
ONYX 4212 [69:23]

Having just completed the most successful Vaughan Williams symphony cycle of recent years, Andrew Manze and the RLPO now set the seal on it with this disc of Vaughan Williams’ most popular orchestral works. It’s very good and could, in fact, be a pretty ideal one-stop-shop for somebody looking for a way into Vaughan Williams, or as a gift for someone who is.

Maybe I’ve spent too long listening to Vaughan Williams played by chamber orchestras, but I particularly loved the big, rich sound of the symphonic strings here. The string section is the foundation on which any such collection has to be built, and they acquit themselves brilliantly here. Dives and Lazarus and the Tallis Fantasia are the two biggest beneficiaries of that. In both cases, the first appearance of the main theme comes pouring out of the bows like liquid velvet. In Dives they make the most out of the low violin register, while there is a more of a sense of the strong middle leading up to the top in the Tallis Fantasia. Either way, these are the two things I enjoyed most in the disc.

The Tallis Fantasia also benefits from an excellent sense of structure. There is a sense of the lines spiralling around one another and we, as listeners, are in the midst of the double helix, embraced by an awesome sense of musical and spiritual architecture. It helps that the recording engineers have done a very good job of placing the string quartet in perspective, and so there is a clear sense of distinctness between the main body and the smaller one. Dives and Lazarus is less architecturally complex, but there’s still a lovely sense of the developing line and a feeling of timelessness as the music unfolds.

It’s luxury casting indeed to have James Ehnes as the soloist in The Lark Ascending, and there’s a sense of freedom and glorious ease to his playing that I found really winning. This isn’t a work that I love, but I found Ehnes’ way with it to be very convincing. Manze and he balance one another well: the conductor seems keen to press on while the violinist feels happy to kick back and enjoy the view. It doesn’t sound like it should work, but in fact it really does, and the rhapsodic final cadenza is a particular delight.

The winds get to shine in the English Folk Song Suite, which observes all the repeats and bumps along very well: to my great surprise, I even found myself admiring the counterpoint at one stage! Greensleeves has that similar sense of timelessness and rich string sound over which the flute delicately sails.

My only complaint is with the opening track. I’ve always thought it a bit of a waste of time doing the Serenade to Music without the chorus. It’s very pleasant, and gorgeously orchestrated, but the text is what gives the whole piece its meaning, and I don’t know why they missed it out when the RLPO has a very fine chorus to hand.

That aside, though, this is a very strong disc; a worthy pendant to this team’s cycle of the symphonies and, as I mentioned above, a pretty ideal one-stop-shop for Vaughan William’s most popular orchestral music.

Simon Thompson

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