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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Songs of Travel (1901-1904) [24:07]
Job: A Masque for Dancing (1927-1930) [45:41] (orchestrated by composer and Roy Douglas)
Neal Davies (bass-baritone), David Adams (violin), Darius Battiwalla (organ), Hallé/Sir Mark Elder
rec. 2-4 July 2019, The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, UK
Sung texts provided
HALLÉ CDHLL7556 [70:16]

With music director Sir Mark Elder at the helm, the Hallé has rebuilt its sterling reputation in the recording studio, a legacy created so notably by Sir John Barbirolli. Hallé’s own label founded in 2003 released a number of acclaimed and award-winning recordings that Elder has conducted. They including the music of Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Richard Strauss, Delius, Debussy, Sibelius and Wagner. Each Hallé concert season invariably includes works by composers from these shores, and that serves to maintain a long tradition.

This new album, a return to the Vaughan Williams series, contains two of the composer’s key works, the cycle Songs of Travel in its orchestral version and Job: A Masque for Dancing. Some Vaughan Williams admirers have described the latter as a masterwork or masterpiece, such is its reputation in certain quarters. Biographer Hubert Foss described Job as noble music, unquestionably one of Vaughan Williams’s major works.

London-born William Blake, a poet, painter and engraver, is often described as a visionary. The centenary year of his death in 1927 sparked a renewed interest in his life and work. Blake authority Geoffrey Keynes was inspired to commission Vaughan Williams to write the music for a ballet based on Blake’s illustrations on the Book of Job, from the Old Testament and the 3rd section of the Hebrew Bible. A wealthy family man, Job, who embodies goodness, is put through formidable examinations of his faith in God.

Initially Keynes offered the Job production project to Diaghilev; the ballet impresario turned it down. Scored for large orchestra, Job was written by Vaughan Williams around the period 1927-1930. It falls between the completion of the Symphony No. 3 ‘Pastoral’ (1922) and the Symphony No. 4 (1934). Vaughan Williams strongly disliked Job’s description as a ballet. He insisted on the title ‘a masque for dancing’.

Plans for an actual staging were uncertain, so Vaughan Williams conducted the first performance of the orchestral score as a concert suite in 1930 at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. This is the score recorded here by the Hallé. To a scenario by Keynes, choreography by Ninette de Valois and designs by Gwendolen Raverat (a cousin of Vaughan Williams), the premiere of Job: A Masque for Dancing was eventually produced for the Camargo Society by the Vic-Wells Ballet, with Constant Lambert conducting. This took place at the Cambridge Theatre, London in July 1931. The first public performance of Job was given a couple of months later at the Old Vic, London. For these and future stage productions, Lambert had re-scored the work in a reduction for a smaller theatre orchestra. Fewer musicians made it better suited to a theatre orchestral pit.

Given its high quality, I believe Job to be one of the most underappreciated works in Vaughan Williams’s output. Sadly, in recent generations Job seems to have suffered from changes in vogue. It is now a work known more by reputation than for actual concert performances and stagings. The last time I attended a live performance was in the spring of 2015, at a concert played by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra under Vassily Sinaisky at Bridgewater Hall, Manchester.

Vaughan Williams designed Job in nine pictorial scenes or tableaux. Each is headed with biblical quotations from the Book of Job, also citing from his own synopsis. The Hallé recording is divided into twelve tracks. Elder’s reading is surefooted and insightful. He adeptly controls tempi, and capably manages the wide dynamics. There is a compelling instinctive response to the dramatic component of the score, which depicts evil and suffering, torment and disaffection. Elder shapes the climaxes especially adroitly, but is not too overpowering. In this Old Testament quest, all orchestral sections of the Hallé shine brightly.

Amongst the highlights, the first-class playing of the Introduction and the Saraband of the Sons of God are immediately striking. The Introduction is described in the notes as music of Arcadian tranquility. The Hallé evocatively provide a portrayal of a blissful and comforting pastoral landscape: Job sits with his wife, joined by their children, servant and then a group of angels. In stark contrast, the impressive build-ups to the climaxes begin with the forbidding response at Satan’s unnoticed arrival. The admirable Satan’s Dance of Triumph contains Satan’s Dance and a depiction of Satan climbing to sit on God’s throne. With real confidence, the Hallé play radiantly. They understand the writing that ranges from a curious sense of threat to a state of mocking humour. The is outstanding playing of Dance of Job's Comforters - Job's Curse - A Vision of Satan that represents the hypocrisy of the Comforter’s actions as they pretend to be helpful and sympathetic to Job. Here the powerful organ part, taken by Darius Battiwalla, has a notable effect.

My first-choice Job is the passionate full-blooded recording of Vernon Handley conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra; it was recorded in 1983 at St. Augustine’s Church, Kilburn, London for EMI. Insightful and potent, the 1970 recording of the London Symphony Orchestra under Adrian Boult was made at Kingsway Hall, London, also for EMI. Although compelling, this new recording is not quite as emotionally hard-hitting; for me, it complements but does not replace those two readings.

It seems highly likely that Vaughan Williams’s interest in songs was sparked by his accomplished masters at London’s Royal College of Music, Parry and Stanford. Both were seasoned song-writers, influential in the revival of the genre of English Art Song. Vaughan Williams’s compositional style was still evolving in 1901-1904 when he made three significant ventures in song-writing. There is Willow-Wood for baritone and piano (later remodeled for women’s chorus and orchestrated as a cantata), the settings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s sonnet collection The House of Life, and Songs of Travel, a cycle of nine songs originally scored for baritone voice and piano.

Songs of Travel set texts selected from a substantial book of poems by Robert Louis Stevenson, Songs of Travel and Other Verses. Vaughan Williams’s cycle is sometims described as his equivalent of the so-called ‘wanderer tradition’, epitomised by Schubert’s masterpiece Winterreise. By t1904, Vaughan Williams was still over three years away from a Parisian period of study with Ravel. His first symphony, A Sea Symphony, would not be heard for another six years. In 1904, the Songs of Travel cycle received its first performance, presented as a group of eight songs. Only one of them had been published, No. 7 in The Vocalist magazine in 1902. After the premiere, although it was an integrated cycle, it was published in two books in 1905 and 1907. Completing the cycle today is No. 9, I have trod the upward and the downward path, not found until the composer had died, and published posthumously in 1960.

In 1905, Vaughan Williams orchestrated three of the Songs of Travel, Nos. 1, 3 and 8. It was his music assistant Ray Douglas who in 1962 undertook the orchestration of the remaining songs. He chose to employ the original instrumentation. (I personally prefer the original guise for piano and voice.)

The soloist in Songs of Travel is Newport-born bass-baritone Neal Davies. A former pupil at King’s College and Royal Academy of Music, London, the Welshman continued his study at the International Opera Studio in Zurich. He came to prominence by winning the Lieder Prize at the 1991 Cardiff Singer of the World Competition. He is equally at home on the concert stage, recital hall and opera house.

The most familiar of the cycle, and rightly so, is the vigorous opening setting The Vagabond. It represents the romanticised freedom of a wanderer’s simple, strife-free existence in the great outdoors. Responding to the steady, striding tread of this magnificent song, Davies’s wholehearted singing sets the pulse racing; he creates a spirit of resolve and positivity essential to survive life out on the road.

Very different in character, Let Beauty Awake is another personal favourite, the lyrical jewel of the cycle with its depiction of being in love from first-light and nightfall. In his element here, Davies produces with passionate involvement most adept singing of this love episode.

Regarded by some as the centerpiece, Youth and Love is my highlight of this recital. Davies seems to get to the heart of the text which surely signifies the predicament of choosing between love and settling down, as opposed to the isolated life of the wayfarer. Entirely convincing, this is an absorbing example of the level of empathy that Davies affords Stevenson’s evocative text.

This orchestrated version of Songs of Travel is performed capably. The committed Davies supplies hearty reserves of sincerity and puts emphasis on the import of the text. His mid-range is most agreeable. He efficiently achieves his high register, and can sing extremely quietly. However, when compared to the finest exponents of this work (see my list below), he does not show the same range of tone colour. Heseems less comfortable in the lower reaches of his range, where some slight coarseness is evident under pressure. On this release, a viewpoint concerning Davies’s vibrato has been expressed. My response is that his vibrato is not a feature of his voice that concerns me or detracts from this performance. He profits from staunch support by the Hallé with playing that feels vibrantly fresh and dramatically absorbing.

This new account does not match my solid first-choice recording from 1983 by baritone Thomas Allen with the CBSO under Simon Rattle on EMI. Allen’s performance is full of elevated artistry and no shortage of colour. My general preference for the voice and piano version is the 1995 recording on Deutsche Grammophon by bass-baritone Bryn Terfel. The sheer power and immense character of Terfel’s voice is outstanding, and he is skillfully accompanied by Malcolm Martineau. A very different yet notable performance, from 1986 on Chandos, is given with utmost sensitivity and intelligent expression by baritone Benjamin Luxon with pianist David Willison. In his prime Luxon had few peers in this type of repertoire, and he certainly excels here.

The studio recording at Bridgewater Hall, Manchester was made by the engineering team of Steve Portnoi and Niall Gault. It provides pleasing sonics but I prefer slightly closer sound. In the booklet, there is a pair of informative essays written by Andrew Burn. Full sung English texts are provided.

Mark Elder and the Hallé make a compelling case for Job: A Masque for Dancing. Songs of Travel, although well performed, are up against solid competition.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Jim Westhead

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