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RVW brass ALBCD052
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Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Vaughan Williams on Brass
Flourish for Band (1939)
English Folk Songs Suite (1923)
Sea Songs (1924)
Henry the Fifth (1934?)
The Truth from Above (1912/1928)
Prelude on Rhosymedre (1920)
Suite from 49th Parallel (1941)
Prelude on Three Welsh Hymn Tunes (1954)
Tuba Concerto in F minor (1954)
Variations for Brass Band (1957)
Ross Knight (tuba), Tredegar Town Band/Ian Porthouse, Martin Brabbins
rec. 2021/2022, Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, Wales

This survey of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s brass band music begins with the short Flourish for Band, originally devised for wind band. It was first heard in 1939 at a pageant Festival of Music and People at the Royal Albert Hall, organised by Alan Bush. It is typically bold, brash and strident in tone, with a quieter middle section. Roy Douglas arranged it in 1972 for brass. This recording uses Phillip Littlemore’s new edition of the score.

The English Folk Songs Suite written in 1923 require no introduction: scored for military band, it was adapted for full orchestra the following year by fellow composer Gordon Jacob. Frank Wright made a version for brass band in 1956, and Phillip Littlemore prepared the present score. The three movements are March: Seventeen Come Sunday, Intermezzo: My Bonny Boy and March: Folk Songs from Somerset. It is the first that has become popular on Classic FM.

The Sea Songs were initially scored for military and brass bands in 1923. RVW transcribed them in 1942 for full orchestra. The first performance was almost certainly at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924. The three tunes majored on include Princess Royal, Admiral Benbow and Portsmouth. Once again, Phillip Littlemore has made a brilliant new edition for brass band.

The first of RVW’s original brass band pieces here is Henry the Fifth. There is some doubt as to when it was composed. The liner notes suggest that it could have been written for the 1934 Abinger Pageant. The overture was formally premiered in 1979 in Miami, Florida, and in the UK the following year at Thetford, Norfolk. Roy Douglas prepared the performing edition. The work uses four traditional melodies, two French and two English. The opening is based on the Agincourt Song, celebrating Henry’s victory over the French in 1415. It is a powerful, sometimes scary arrangement of this tune. Tranquillity appears in the form of the Provençal air Magali followed by the marching song, Réveillez-vous Piccars. This latter is real battle music. The Overture ends with a reprise of the Agincourt Song and then an arrangement of William Byrd’s Earl of Oxford’s March embellished with elaborate fanfares.

Three admirable arrangements follow. The Truth from Above makes use of the eponymous folk song sung to the composer by Mr W. Jenkins of King’s Pyon in Herefordshire in 1909. RVW also used it in the opening of his 1912 Fantasia on Christmas Carols and later in the Oxford Book of Carols. It opens with a tuba solo and explores various settings of the tune, before building up into a stately climax. The tuba plays the last notes. The piece has been realised by Paul Hindmarsh.

Hindmarsh transcribed the Prelude on Rhosymedre for brass band in 2008 to mark the 50th anniversary of RVW’s death; that was premiered at the Royal Northern College of Music Festival of Brass. This beautiful meditation is most often heard in the original organ solo from 1920, or occasionally in its 1938 orchestral version by Arnold Foster.

The 49th Parallel was a successful wartime film on the exploits of the crew of a German U-boat sunk in Canada’s Hudson Bay as they try to reach the then neutral United States. Vaughan Williams provided the film score. The Prelude: The New Commonwealth is often played and regularly heard on Classic FM. In 2004, Chandos Records issued a Suite of this music arranged and edited by Stephen Hogger. It was of symphonic proportions: nearly 40 minutes. The present offering for brass band was devised by Paul Hindmarsh and arranged by Philip Littlemore. It includes the film’s opening scenes, some pastoral images of the Canadian landscape, a scary Lutheran chorale and the “mechanical, jaunty Control Room Alert with its persistent drive and energy”. Also featured briefly is the haunting The Lake in the Mountains, which RVW later issued as a piano solo. Finally, the sumptuous Prelude brings this superbly dramatic suite to a satisfying and quite moving conclusion.

The second original brass band work was completed in 1955. The Prelude on Three Welsh Hymn Tunes was first publicly heard during a BBC broadcast on 12 March of that year. The liner notes describe it as an “uncomplicated arrangement, flowing seamlessly from a reverential opening to a noble, triumphant climax”. I am not quite convinced it is uncomplicated. Much is going on in the instrumental contrasts and interesting variety of tempo changes. The three hymn tunes are Ebenezer, Calfaria and Hyfrydol. It is a well-balanced piece that is “expansive and festive”, with reflective moments.

The Tuba Concerto in F major was a commission for the Golden Jubilee of the London Symphony Orchestra for 1954. It is often regarded as the first viable concerto devised for this instrument. The work is in three movements. A beautifully wrought Romanza is bookended by a bouncy Prelude and a vivacious Rondo alla tedesca. Both fast movements have virtuosic cadenzas. The Concerto was originally scored for soloist and a “theatre orchestra”. An early review described it as “a curiosity rather than a convincing work or art” and said that the “lumbering gait of the solo tuba, like that of a sea-lion negotiating a step ladder, arouses interest rather than pleasure”. History has proved that not only is this probably RVW’s best-known concerto but is regarded as a perfectly stated exploration of the possibilities of the solo tuba. Ross Knight’s performance is exceptional in every way. He makes his instrument dance and sing its journey through the entire concerto. We owe the present brass band arrangement to Philip Littlemore.

The last of the three original brass band compositions here is the Variations for Brass Band, a commission for the 1957 National Brass Championships. Frank Wright, who edited the original score, described it as “a new landmark in the history of contesting – perhaps the most significant in the whole history of brass bands”. This new edition has been prepared (once again) by Philip Littlemore and published by Boosey & Hawkes. It corrects a “vast number of errors” and “is substantially different than Frank Wright’s contest edition published for the 1957 contest”.

Of interest here is the origins of the main theme. It first appeared in the early orchestral work, Triumphal Epilogue from 1901. It was to reappear in the tone poem The Solent (1903), the Sea Symphony (1903-1909) and in the slow movement of the Symphony No. 9 (1956-1958). It clearly had special meaning for Vaughan Williams. There are eleven variations, which include dance movements, such as a waltz, an arabesque and a Polacca, and some more cerebral offerings such as Canon and Fugato. There are some reflective moments as well, including the sad Adagio. The work concludes with a Chorale.

The Tredegar Town Band under their musical director Ian Porthouse and guest conductor Martyn Brabbins give enthusiastic performances of all this repertoire. I have already noted Ross Knight’s remarkable contribution.

Paul Hindmarsh and Philip Littlemore’s fulsome liner notes are a pleasure to read, and give a genuinely helpful account of all the music. The sound quality of the recording is excellent.
Made under the auspices of The Ralph Vaughan Williams Society, this recording is a splendid contribution to the 2022 celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth. For those of us of certain age, it does not seem that long ago when we were celebrating his centenary in 1972!

John France

Previous review: Nick Barnard (Recording of the Month)

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