Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Pan’s Anniversary (1905)
Margery Wentworth (1935)
Peace, Come Away (1895)
To Sleep! To Sleep! (1896?)
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (arr. for voices and strings by Timothy Burke)
Thomas Tallis (from Archbishop Parker’s Psalter) Why Fum’th in Sight
Mary Bevan, Sophie Bevan (sopranos); Jess Dandy (contralto); Timothy West, Samuel West (speakers – Shepherd and Fencer); Johnny Herford (baritone)
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
Britten Sinfonia/William Vann
rec. 2021, Henry Wood Hall, London
ALBION RECORDS ALBCD054 
With the exception of the very short piece by Tallis, the whole of this CD is given over to recorded premieres. The chief interest lies in Pan’s Anniversary but it makes sense to deal first with the other items.
Margery Wentworth is a setting of lines by John Skelton, whose poetry was set by Vaughan Williams in Five Tudor Portraits (1935). According to the notes, Roy Douglas thought that VW considered Margery Wentworth for inclusion in the larger work but rejected the idea. However, judging by the title which VW himself wrote on the manuscript of Margery Wentworth, it seems more likely that it may have been part of a separate intended work using lines from a quite different Skelton poem, ‘The Garland of Love’. What we hear in this instance is an edition by the composer Christopher Gordon which retains VWs vocal parts “essentially untouched”. In orchestrating the music, Gordon modestly admits that it was necessary “to take some liberties to bring the work to life”. I think he is too self-deprecating. The instrumental scoring is light, tasteful and, to my ears, far from inauthentic. The whole is a most attractive little piece. Johnny Herford is an admirable soloist and the Clare College choir support him very well, as do the members of Britten Sinfonia.
Peace, Come Away and To Sleep! To Sleep! are both Tennyson settings. The former definitely dates from 1895. The music presented here is based on what VW left as his second draft of a work for chorus and wind instruments. According to the booklet, the piece is “orchestrated” by Christopher Gordon but, based on my reading of the booklet note, I fancy he had quite a bit of editing work to do as well. It’s not possible to date To Sleep! To Sleep! with certainty but 1896 seems a fairly strong bet. If that’s right then this is VW’s first work involving an orchestra and, once again, we have Christopher Gordon to thank for editing it. Neither of these Tennyson pieces is going to set the world alight; neither shows us any real hints of VW’s own style. However, it’s very interesting to hear both of them.
The last item on the disc will divide opinion, I fancy. A little bit of background is appropriate and I will summarise what Timothy Burke says in his notes. Burke is the Chorus Director of the Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia. During the 2020 Covid-induced lockdown, Burke, like choirmasters throughout the UK, was trying desperately to find inventive ways to keep his singers engaged and functioning as a group in as effective and stimulating a way as possible. He hit upon the idea of reimagining the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis for chorus. The aim was to have every member record their own part at home and then bring everything together digitally. Burke’s project, which evolved into a 15-minute film, was a very complex undertaking and eventually required the bringing together of 650 recordings from 135 different singers. That’s a prodigious undertaking and a remarkable achievement, not just on technical grounds.
At William Vann’s suggestion Burke’s concept has now been translated into a studio recording for this CD with everyone in the same room. The members of the Choir of Clare College sing VW’s music. The text they have is verses from Psalm 2, as found in Archbishop Parker’s Psalter; in other words, the source of the words to which Tallis set his original hymn tune. However, the nature of the music is such that at least some of the choir also have to sing wordlessly at times. Initially, the choir is unaccompanied until 5:42. This is point at which, in the original version, VW brings in the important solo lines for the four section principals in the main string orchestra. These parts are played by the respective stringed instruments and thereafter strings are involved in the rest of the piece. (If I interpret correctly the small print in the booklet, I think an octet of strings is involved.)
I’m sorry to say that I don’t find Burke’s arrangement at all to my taste. The combination of voices and strings ends up as something of a mish-mash and VW’s music is so complex that eventually I gave up trying to follow the words that the choir sings. There’s another problem, I think. Samuel Barber’s Agnus Dei arrangement of his Adagio for Strings is cited as an exemplar. I can see why, but one reason I’ve never been entirely comfortable with Barber’s Agnus Dei is that because the choir sings the original string parts the sopranos in particular are often required to sing in alt and the results can sound strained, even with the most expert choirs. The same is true here: the Clare College choir sings well but the sound of the sopranos often sounds piping, simply because they’re having to sing high-lying lines that were never designed for the human voice by the composer. I readily concede that this vocal arrangement was an innovative and resourceful approach to the constraints of lockdown but, candidly, it served its purpose then and should have been left at that. I’ve listened to it dutifully for review purposes but I can’t imagine I will ever revisit it.
Pan’s Anniversary has a fascinating back story. In sketching the background, I will draw on the excellent essay by John Francis in the booklet. Pan’s Anniversary or The Shepherd’s Holyday was a masque devised by Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones for performance in front of King James I in 1621. Apparently, in early twentieth century Britain there was a brief vogue for the revival of Stuart-era masques, and a revival of Pan’s Anniversary was mooted to take place in Stratford on Avon to mark Shakespeare’s birthday on 23 April. (The actual performance was scheduled for the following day, which was Easter Monday, I understand.) It’s not clear how far in advance this one-off performance was planned but I wonder if the musical aspect was something of an afterthought. Vaughan Williams was not approached, it seems, until quite late in the day – he accepted the commission to write the incidental music in early March. Indeed, so little time was given to him that he had to enlist the help of his friend Gustav Holst, who helped out by arranging a number of Elizabethan dances for orchestra. Some of the other music was conveniently furnished by using traditional tunes played on the fiddle while Morris dancers strutted their stuff.
It appears that Jonson’s original script was heavily cut in 1905 and in devising this performance Albion have taken a similarly pragmatic view. They have also sensibly cut some of the repeats which would undoubtedly have been played during the instrumental dance music. What we have here, then, is a Masque that plays for just over 41 minutes. The musical forces consist of three female vocal soloists (the Nymphs), a mixed chorus and a modest orchestra. The two speaking parts, a Shepherd and a Fencer, are given to the father-and-son team of Timothy and Samuel West and it’s a delight to hear two such distinguished actors at work, bringing to life Jonson’s lines.
If I say that the music is of varying quality, I don’t mean that in a disparaging way. The music provided by VW and Holst was designed for an entertainment; consequently, profundity was not required. That said, as we shall see, four of the numbers – the four Hymns – contain music of genuine substance, while the “lesser” numbers all display fine craftmanship. Including the speaking passages, there are 21 items, all separately tracked, and the majority do not exceed two minutes in duration. Incidentally, in printing the libretto Albion have included the stage directions (such as they are) and some useful little notes about what traditional tunes have been used at various junctures; all that is very helpful.
Holst’s contributions were confined to very skilful and accomplished orchestral arrangements of a number of Elizabethan and traditional dances. There are four numbers by Holst, including the dance music that accompanied The Revels and also, slightly surprisingly, the Final Music (more dance arrangements) was provided not by VW but by Holst. Vaughan Williams was responsible for eight items, three of which were quite slender. The others were the instrumental Introduction – a stately curtain-raiser – and the Four Hymns.
These Hymns constitute the music of genuine substance in Pan’s Anniversary. All involve the full forces. The first, ‘Of Pan we Sing’ has solo verses for each of the Nymphs with the chorus singing a refrain. The music is very characteristic of what I might term early-mature VW; it’s completely charming. The second Hymn is ‘Pan is Our All’. At the start, VW reprises the stately tune from the Introduction. When the nymphs begin to sing their tune is a close relative of ‘Sine nomine’, the great tune to which VW set For all the Saints in The English Hymnal (1906). His way with Skelton’s words here is rather more than “just” a strophic setting; instead, the music is intelligently varied to match the different moods of Skelton’s words. The third Hymn, ‘If Yet, If Yet’ follows closely. Here, the third Nymph (Jess Dandy) takes the lead and it’s interesting to hear how VW contrasts the deep notes of the vocal line with light, bright accompaniment. The setting also includes imaginative use of a distant semi chorus. The final hymn is ‘Great Pan’. Here, VW’s music has an air of nobility to it; the quiet ending of the number is very lovely.
Pan’s Anniversary is fascinating. Given the subject matter and nature of the work, I wasn’t sure what I’d make of it but I found myself drawn into it. That’s a tribute to the craftsmanship of Vaughan Williams – not forgetting Gustav Holst – and it’s also a tribute to the skill of the present performers. Timothy and Samuel West really engage the listener’s attention, while the three Nymphs, Mary Bevan, Sophie Bevan and Jess Dandy all sing marvellously. The contributions of the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge and the Britten Sinfonia are first rate. William Vann directs the proceedings with his customary enthusiasm and energy.
A great deal of work has gone into the preparation of the score and libretto so that Pan’s Anniversary could be fashioned into a viable recording project and brought back to life more than a century after its one and only performance. Here, we should single out especially the work of Peter J Clulow, who died as a result of Covid in January 2021. We learn from the booklet that it was he who transcribed Pan’s Anniversary from the manuscripts; he also suggested tunes and arrangements where required. I also recall that he was a leading light in the production of Albion’s disc of music by John Sykes (review). Albion have dedicated this latest release to the memory of Peter Clulow.
As is always the case with an Albion release, production values are high. The recorded sound is excellent; producer Andrew Walton and engineer Deborah Spanton have expertly balanced the various forces in a recording that is warm, detailed and atmospheric. The documentation is scrupulously researched and very interesting to read.
Pan’s Anniversary is a notable addition to the Vaughan Williams discography, adding to our knowledge of the composer at the time when he was honing his craft and establishing himself on the British musical scene. As such, it’s a worthy element in the celebrations of VW’s 150th anniversary and I’m very pleased that I’ve been able to hear it in such a splendid performance.
Previous reviews: Nick Barnard ~ John France ~ Gwyn Parry-Jones