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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. July 2019, The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
Texts included
HALLÉ CDHLL7556 [70:16]

I’ve been following – and admiring – Sir Mark Elder’s Vaughan Williams symphony cycle. I’ve long been hoping that he would also record Job, and now he has.

The coupling is enterprising. VW’s song cycle Songs of Travel is very frequently heard in recital in the original version for voice with piano; it’s much less common to encounter it in its orchestral guise. In fact, VW only orchestrated three of the songs himself: ‘The Vagabond’, ‘The Roadside Fire’ and ‘Bright is the Ring of Words’. The other songs were orchestrated by the composer’s assistant, Roy Douglas at the request of the publishers Boosey & Hawkes. That was in 1962, by which time the ninth song, ‘I Have Trod the Upward and the Downward Slope’ had been found in VW’s papers after his death, so Douglas was able to score that song also. Andrew Burn points out in his notes that Douglas said that he used the same forces as VW had used for three songs in 1905 but he also kept in his mind how the composer might have scored the others by 1958; in Douglas’s words, this was ‘a typical British compromise’. I think he did a splendid job and had one not known it would be a challenge to differentiate between the scoring of VW and of Douglas.

By the time my review copy of this disc arrived two of my colleagues had appraised it and I couldn’t help but see their reviews. I was intrigued to see that they had different views of the singing of Neal Davies. I deliberately allowed some time to pass before listening to the disc and only after completing my task did I revisit their comments. I see that Jim Westhead was bothered by Davies’ use of vibrato but Michael Cookson didn’t find this so much of an issue. Looking back now at my own notes, I see that my listening experience placed me somewhat closer to Michael’s view of the vibrato. I also agree with him that on this occasion Neal Davies seems a trifle uncomfortable right at the bottom of his vocal compass – something I’ve not remarked on when I’ve heard him singing live. Since there’s a divergence of views about Davies’ singing readers might want to sample the recording for themselves before committing to a purchase.

In ‘The Vagabond’ I was conscious, at high-lying climaxes, of the vibrato that Jim Westhead noted but, overall, I liked Neal Davies’ performance. Throughout the cycle the orchestral scoring is skilfully done so that it enhances and colours the music without distracting from the vocal line. A typically perceptive detail that caught my ear was the chattering, eager accompaniment in ‘The Roadside Fire’. I also liked the accompaniment to ‘Youth and Love’, which Andrew Burn aptly describes as “gently lapping”. Here, I admire the way Davies fines down his voice for the intimacy of the first stanza before opening up – as does Roy Douglas’s scoring – for the rapturous second stanza. Davies seems really “inside” the music of ‘The Infinite Shining Heavens’ which he sings very sensitively. In ‘Whither Must I Wander’ Roy Douglas perceptively holds back the harp; it is silent in the first two stanzas, making all the more effective its participation in the final verse.

This is a very good performance of Songs of Travel. I found much to admire in Neal Davies’ singing while Sir Mark Elder and the excellent Hallé bring out all the felicitous details of the orchestral scoring. That said, when I turned to my longstanding favourite version – the recording made by Thomas Allen and the CBSO under Simon Rattle - I found that nothing in this new version dimmed my admiration for Allen. He sings with all the perception that one associates with this fine artist and his firm tone is consistently well-focused throughout his vocal compass. The orchestral score is very well played by the CBSO and the EMI recording, first issued in 1984, still sounds very well. Indeed, I found that the sound of the orchestra was a touch more ‘present’ than is the case on the Hallé disc. Allen and Rattle remain my first choice for the cycle in its orchestral version but I don’t think anyone acquiring the Davies/Elder version will be disappointed.

In his first-class booklet note about Job, Andrew Burn describes this work as “one of [VW’s] supreme achievements”. Actually, I’d go further. I love and greatly admire all nine of the composer’s symphonies but I regard Job as his finest orchestral work of all. It was conceived for a ballet inspired by William Blake’s set of engraved illustrations for the Book of Job. VW, though very happy to take part in the venture, was adamant that the work should be called a masque, not a ballet. Scored for a very large orchestra, it was first performed as a concert piece in 1930. It was not until the following year that the music was heard in a staged version; on that occasion, due to the constraints of the theatre’s pit, the orchestral forces were reduced by Constant Lambert, who conducted the performances. (In passing, I wonder if Lambert’s reduced scoring survived and what it sounded like,)

Job is a relative rarity in the concert hall – I’ve only once had the opportunity to experience it live – but there have been several distinguished recordings. The most recent, a fine performance and sonically spectacular, is the 2016 Chandos recording by Sir Andrew Davis (review). When I considered that recording, I was delighted to find how well the 1983 Vernon Handley performance stood up in audio comparison and, of course, it’s a marvellous performance. I don’t believe that the magisterial account by Sir Adrian Boult, through which I first got to know the work, can be obtained anymore other than, perhaps, in a boxed set (review). In view of his track record as a VW conductor, I wasn’t in the least surprised to find that Sir Mark Elder’s new version is fully a match for these and other previous recordings.

In the opening section Elder and his orchestra convey marvellously what Andrew Burn so felicitously calls the “Arcadian tranquillity” of the music. The ‘Saraband of the Sons of God’ moves on quite swiftly – Handley is significantly broader – and though Elder’s speed is rather quicker than I can recall hearing from other conductors, I think that he ensures that the music sounds stately, as it should, yet he achieves welcome momentum too. What a fine, sturdy tune this is!

Another Andrew Burn description that fits the music to a tee is his characterisation of ‘Satan’s Dance of Triumph’ as “a whirling torrent of swaggering menace”; that’s exactly how it comes across in this performance. Elder and his orchestra make the music sound grotesque and evil. One of the triumphs of Job is how seamlessly VW moves from snarling, malevolent music to tranquillity, as the scenario demands. An example is the way he follows ‘Satan’s Dance of Triumph’ with the lambent textures of ‘Minuet of the Sons of Job and Their Wives’. The Hallé plays this delicate episode with the utmost refinement and then turns on all the power that’s required to depict the awful moment when Satan cuts down Job’s sons and their spouses.

There’s exquisitely soft string playing to relish during ‘Job’s Dream’ but then Elder and his players abruptly shatter the peaceful mood with vivid, biting playing in the ‘Dance of Plague, Pestilence, Famine and Battle’. A memorable addition to VWs orchestral palette in this work is the saxophone which we hear in the ‘Dance of Job’s Comforters’. The wheedling sound of the saxophone is perfect for this music. All the sneering hypocrisy of Job’s false comforters comes out in the performance until the full orchestra is deployed to depict the anguish of Job as, tempted beyond endurance, he curses God. Immediately, Satan is revealed, sitting on the throne of God. At the dreadful moment of Satan’s triumph Darius Battiwalla, at the console of the Bridgewater Hall’s Marcussen organ, lets rip, producing a massive, brazen sound. The organ might not sound quite as awesome as the instrument in Bergen Cathedral which features on the Andrew Davis performance but the Manchester organ is still pretty spectacular and it makes a tremendous contribution to the terrifying climax that Elder and his forces achieve.

In another of those contrasts to which I referred, VW moves almost without pause to the seraphic loveliness of ‘Elihu’s Dance of Youth and Beauty’. David Adams plays the rapturous violin solo most movingly. After the unpleasantness of the false comforters, Job now benefits from a genuine comforter. This radiant episode is played superbly by all concerned. As was the case with the earlier Saraband, Mark Elder moves the ‘Pavane of the Sons of the Morning’ forward with an admirable blend of purpose and poetry; he finds just the right dignity in the music. Satan makes one last snarling appearance but he gets his comeuppance as God banishes him. Cue the rejoicing of the ‘Galliard of the Sons of the Morning’, which is vigorous and joyful in Elder’s hands. The end of Job’s story draws near and in the gently glowing Epilogue VW revisits the material of the opening. This Epilogue is beautifully played, the Hallé once again showing supreme sensitivity. After all his trials and tribulations, Job is at peace and VW’s masterpiece ends in quiet, radiant calm.

This is a magnificent account of Job. With this performance Sir Mark Elder further confirms his stature as one of the finest of all Vaughan Williams conductors. His superb orchestra follows him every step of the way: their power and precision are awesome at times while the refinement with which they deliver the more subdued sections of the work is as balm to the soul – and to the ears. This is a singular achievement and a pinnacle in Elder’s Vaughan Williams cycle.

Steve Portnoi has recorded both works expertly. The well-produced booklet benefits from expert notes by Andrew Burn; he’s particularly strong on Job

John Quinn

Previous reviews: Jim Westhead ~ Michael Cookson

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