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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) RVW from America - Forgotten Recordings of the 50s
Texts included ALBION RECORDS ALBCD048 [68:01]
As the title of this CD indicates, Albion Records have here uncovered some very rare Vaughan Williams recordings set down in the USA in the 1950s. This isn’t the first time they’ve trodden this path. On a previous release they restored to the catalogue Capitol Records’ live recording of a performance of Five Tudor Portraits conducted by William Steinberg at a concert that was part of the First Pittsburgh International Music Festival in 1952 (review). America was also the source of something even rarer: the only published recording, so far as I’m aware, of A Pilgrim Journey, a set of extracts from Pilgrim’s Progress woven by Roy Douglas into what my colleague Rob Barnett very fairly described as “a sort of concert scenario” (review). This present collection differs from those aforementioned releases in that all the recordings were made under studio conditions. All are very interesting.
In the Concerto for Two Pianos, we hear Arthur Whittemore (1915-1984) and Jack Lowe (1917-1996) as the soloists. This is an especially valuable document because it was they who had given the US premiere of the concerto the year before this recording was made. I’m sorry to admit that I’d not heard of these artists before, but I learned from Ronald Grames’ substantial and highly informative booklet essay that Whittemore and Lowe formed a celebrated duet partnership for over 40 years. Commendably, they kept the VW concerto in their repertoire. Here, they’re partnered by the Robin Hood Dell Orchestra of Philadelphia - the name under which the majority of the members of the Philadelphia Orchestra would play during the off-season summer months - and conductor Vladimir Golschmann (1893-1972). The recording was made for RCA Victor and I think I’m right in saying that it was the first recording of the work. However, as Ronald Grames explains, it became a casualty of that record company’s decision to back what turned out to be the wrong horse when the recording industry moved into the LP era; as he says, it was “one of the many casualties of the format upheaval.” That’s a pity because, though the work’s next recording – the 1968 Vronsky & Babin version conducted by Boult for EMI – presents the score in significantly better sound, there’s a good deal to commend this 1950 reading.
The concerto is in three movements, played without a break. In the opening Toccata the pianos are very much in the foreground and that emphasises the percussive nature of the music. Though the pianos dominate when the full ensemble is playing, in the purely orchestral passages it’s possible to discern the players’ keen response. From 4:11 the music relaxes significantly to pave the way for the Romanza second movement. The way Whittemore and Lowe deliver this passage promises much for the slow movement, and they don’t disappoint. The slow movement has gentle, pastoral characteristics and there’s much sensitivity to admire, both from the soloists and from the orchestra (the principal flute and oboe make very pleasing contributions). The performance of this movement is poetic and really very good indeed. The finale is marked Fuga chromatica con Finale alla Tedesca. It’s a substantial movement – nearly as long as the two preceding movements combined – and, frankly, I think it goes on a bit. However, the present performance is energetic and incisive from all concerned and it’s clear that Whittemore and Lowe are fully equal to VW’s demands (and, it should be said, those of Joseph Cooper, who refashioned the concerto to be played by two pianists with the blessing of the composer). The alla Tedesca is quite elegantly done. For all the power that characterised both the first movement and much of the last movement, the concerto ends in a surprising fashion. The slow, mysterious ending is poetically performed by Whittemore and Lowe. There are sonic limitations to this seventy-year-old recording, as you’d expect, especially in the loud passages. That said, this recording was well worth rescuing from obscurity.
The remaining performances are linked to Cornell University in upstate New York where Keith Falkner, the distinguished British baritone and great friend of VW was invited to found a voice department in 1950; he stayed for a decade. From reading the extensive booklet essay, I don’t believe that Falkner was directly involved in these recordings but his encouraging presence on the campus must surely have been a factor. Leading the performances was Robert Hull (1916-1999) who was at that time Cornell’s Director of University Musical Activities. It was he who founded the 50-strong Cornell A Capella Chorus.
Hull’s first VW recording was made in May 1952 and the repertoire choice was ambitious. Flos Campi is a very beautiful but elusive work. I think it would be fair to say that it’s too little known – at least through live performances – even nowadays and I’m sure that was the case in the early 1950s; so, it was a brave choice by Hull. His viola soloist was Francis Tursi (1922-1991). His name was new to me but I gather from the booklet that this is one of just two commercial recordings that he made
as a soloist with orchestra, though he took part in several recordngs of
chamber music. He’s a fine soloist here. I appreciated very much his firm tone and his soulful rendition of the many meditative passages, such as those which occur in the third of Flos Campi’s six sections. In the section that follows Robert Hull and his performers get just right what Ronald Grames aptly describes as the “strutting Eastern march”. The lovely modal writing of the concluding section comes off very well. This was only the second recording of Flos Campi and it’s no mean achievement.
The following May, Robert Hull and his singers made some more VW recordings. The Fantasia (quasi Variazione) on the ‘Old 104th’ Psalm Tune had been performed for the first time only in 1950; that was at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester, the same festival at which was unveiled a much greater work, Howells’ Hymnus Paradisi. Until I received this disc, I had believed that the EMI recording which Sir Adrian Boult and Peter Katin made in 1970 was the work’s first outing in the recording studio, but it seems that Robert Hull beat Sir Adrian to it by some 17 years. Actually, in a way, both are first recordings: Boult recorded the full score whereas Hull set down the composer’s own version for piano, choir, organ and strings.
It’s a most odd work, a little on the lines of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasia. I have to admit that it’s not a score that thrills me. On this occasion, the soloist is the British pianist, John Hunt and he impresses; he’s clearly up to the challenges of the solo part. The choir are recorded at some distance – or at least, that’s the impression – and though they make a nice sound their words are completely indistinct; I could scarcely make out any words, even though I was following the text in the booklet. John Hunt is foregrounded by the engineers, so it’s a good job he’s a commanding presence. Hats off to Robert Hull for his enterprise in recording this score, but neither he nor Sir Adrian convince me that the work is all that good.
Ronald Grames surmises that the three short a cappella works were set down at the same time as the Fantasia and that seems entirely plausible to me. In these folk song arrangements, the choir’s words are much clearer than in the Fantasia, particularly in the first two songs. The arrangement of John Dory was published in 1934. In this piece Hull gets his singers to impart a nice lilt to the rhythms, which is just what’s wanted. Their singing of the 1913 arrangement of The Dark-Eyed Sailor is lively and well disciplined. The pick of the bunch, though, is the haunting The Turtle Dove. This is a wonderful tune, most sympathetically arranged by VW. The choir sings it well but the spotlight falls principally on the baritone soloist, A. Stratton McAllister (b 1932). What a fine voice he has! Deservedly, there’s a welcome amount of biographical information about him in the booklet. He was an undergraduate at Cornell when this recording was made, but he was reading not music but electrical engineering. He had the opportunity to study with Keith Falkner and it seems he made the most of it. His voice is firm and clear, with impeccable diction. He’s truly excellent. He went on to have a successful business career but, on this showing, he might well have made a professional singing career for himself.
This is a very rewarding compilation of American performances; all were well worth rescuing from obscurity. The recordings do show their ages in some respects but any sonic limitations won’t prevent you from enjoying these dedicated performances. The transfers have been made from LPs, chiefly by Ronald Grames; all the transfers have been very well managed. Albion Records’ booklets are always a mine of fascinating information and Ronald Grames’ excellent and thoroughly researched essay is in the best traditions of the house.
Contents and performance details Concerto for Two Pianofortes in C minor [25:28]
Arthur Whittemore and Jack Lowe (duo-piano)
Robin Hood Dell Orchestra of Philadelphia / Vladimir Golschmann
rec. 26 July 1950, venue unknown
Flos Campi [19:49]
Francis Tursi (viola)
Cornell A Capella Chorus; Concert Hall Chamber Orchestra / Robert Hull
rec. 17 May 1952, Bailey Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York
Fantasia (quasi Variazione) on the ‘Old 104th’ Psalm Tune [14:47]
John Hunt (piano); John Beavan (organ);
Cornell A Capella Chorus; Rochester Chamber Orchestra / Robert Hull
rec. 23 May 1953, Sage Chapel, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York
The Turtle Dove – Folk Song [3:19] Five English Folk Songs, No 1 – The Dark-Eyed Sailor [2:18] John Dory – Folk Song [2:19]
A. Stratton McAllister (baritone)
Cornell A Capella Chorus / Robert Hull
rec. 23 May 1953, Sage Chapel, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York?