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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Songs of Travel (1901-04) [24:07]
Job – A Masque for Dancing (1930) [45:41]
Neal Davies (bass-baritone)
Hallé/Sir Mark Elder
rec. 2019, The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
HALLÉ CDHLL7556 [70:16]

I consider myself to be an enthusiast for the works of Ralph Vaughan Williams and have many recordings of his compositions. Few indeed are those which do not “speak” to me in a very special way. One of my favourites is Job – A masque for dancing, and of his early vocal works, I also count the Songs of Travel as being up there with the best.

It was with some interest; therefore, that I received this CD for review. Living about 30 miles from Manchester, I am no stranger to the work of Sir Mark Elder in English music, although I have never heard him conduct Vaughan Williams live. I have, however, heard his mighty performances of the mature Elgar oratorios, and found them to be wonderfully moving.

The disc opens with Songs of Travel, dating from 1901-04, with I have trod the upward and the downward slope added to the group after the composer’s death, in accordance with his wishes. Vaughan Williams himself orchestrated only three of them; the rest were idiomatically orchestrated by Roy Douglas in 1962.

Let me say at the outset that Elder conducts these songs in a totally committed and sympathetic manner, and the Hallé plays them beautifully, really allowing the composer’s melodies to sing. Bass-baritone Neal Davies is a well-known international figure with a distinguished performance and recording career, and I note that he won the Cardiff Lieder Prize in 1991. Unsurprisingly, he interprets these highly melodic songs with care and insight, grading his dark, powerful voice from the gruffly powerful to the tender and introspective.

However, he employs rather too much vibrato for my taste, and it is present throughout his range, becoming minimal only when he is singing quietly. Contrast him with Thomas Allen in his 1984 EMI recording with Simon Rattle; here the voice is mellifluous and firm, and holds my attention fully. Some people do not have the same degree of intolerance of vibrato that I do, but if you regard it as an expressive device, maybe enhancing the communicative qualities of the performance, then you will enjoy this carefully prepared rendition.

Job is a marvellous work, composed in 1930, preceded by the Benedicite and Te Deum and followed by the 4th Symphony. It was inspired by Blake’s illustrations to the biblical Book of Job. Apart from the symphonies, I don’t think that there is another orchestral work in which the composer displays such power and melodic inspiration. The Saraband of the Sons of God is one of his most indelible creations, and it permeates the work. The phrase that accompanies God seated on his throne is majestically orchestrated for strings, harps and horns. The Dance of Job’s Comforters instantly exposes them as three wily hypocrites, and the use of the saxophone for one of them is an inspired effect. Subsequently, when Satan is shown seated on God’s throne surrounded by the Hosts of Hell, Vaughan Williams brings in the mighty organ accompanied by full orchestra to absolutely stunning impact. It is followed by Elihu’s Dance of Youth and Beauty, which is sometimes compared to The Lark Ascending, probably because it is Vaughan Williams at his most lyrical and is also for solo violin and orchestra. I don’t think that it is an apt comparison, as Elihu’s Dance is more austere. Readers who know the work will recognise my enthusiasm, and those who don’t need urgently to explore the piece.

This is a very good performance, meshing lyricism in abundance with mighty orchestral (and organ) power when required. The playing is splendid and the crucial organ part is immensely impactive. The recording is sophisticated but slightly distant, requiring a modicum of volume increase for the full impact of sections such as Satan on God’s Throne and God casting down Satan, to be fully realised. Having said that, the overall balance is judged very well, so that, for example, Elihu’s Dance of Youth and Beauty is not distorted by a giant violin.

Overall, this is an excellent CD, and if you are not over-sensitive to Neal Davies’ vibrato in The Songs of Travel, you may purchase it with confidence.

Jim Westhead

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