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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. 2021/22, Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, Wales ALBION RECORDS ALBCD052 
Of all the new releases for the 150th anniversary of Vaughan Williams’ birth, this is one that I have been most eagerly awaiting. Mention “brass band” to many people and the entire genre is too easily dismissed with the equivalent of a superior sneer. Indeed Vaughan Williams himself was not immune to a degree of unthinking patronisation. The liner quotes him around 1933 advising performers of his Henry V Overture included here; “the vulgar sentimental vibrato which disfigures most brass band performances should be strictly avoided”. Vaughan Williams later recanted this stance and with good reason. If you admire fine musicianship allied to superb technical display and wonderful ensemble playing frankly what is there not to love about a top-notch brass band. A major part of the problem the Vaughan Williams alluded to back in the 1930’s was a relative lack of musically demanding repertoire for bands to play. So too often they would have to fall back on lighter musical fare ranging from marches to potpourris to song transcriptions. But in the UK this changed once serious composers such as Holst embraced the genre with his A Moorside Suite in 1928. Holst of course was one of Vaughan Williams’ closest personal friends and colleagues so you can imagine him persuading his friend as to the virtue of the genre. Important to recognise that the groundwork for the re-evaluation of band music was already being laid by composers such as Percy Fletcher and William Rimmer followed very quickly by the likes of Elgar, Howells, Ireland and many others.
Vaughan Williams actually only wrote three original works for brass band; the aforementioned Overture to Henry V – which remained in manuscript and unperformed until the late 1970’s – the Prelude on Three Welsh Hymn Tunes and the Variations for Brass Band. Those three works constitute around twenty seven minutes of this very generous 79:30 disc. But do not assume the remaining fifty minutes of music is neither idiomatic or of genuine worth. The reason I have been anticipating this release is that the music it contains is high quality but relatively unfamiliar mature Vaughan Williams. Many of this year’s anniversary releases either focus on acknowledged masterpieces such as the nine symphonies or early or peripheral works which add to the sum of our knowledge of the composer without aspiring to greatness. Before discussing the specific music a word about the playing of the Tredegar Town Band and Albion’s recording and presentation. The Band is not as instantly famous as say the Black Dyke Mills, Grimethorpe Colliery or Foden bands. But they date back to 1849 and have been crowned British Open Champions twice in the last twelve years. Suffice to say they are a very fine band indeed under the skilled baton of Ian Porthouse. All the performances on this disc are authoritative and warmly idiomatic. The Albion engineering and production is at their usual high level as is the presentation of the disc with twenty pages of booklet notes (in English only) packed with fascinating and insightful detail. Of the ten works presented on this disc, six are the first recordings of new arrangements or editions of the particular score. Simply put, for any collector wishing to have a collection of the composer’s music for band this disc is both unique and invaluable.
The first three works are all Military Band works arranged for brass band. The brief Flourish for Band works especially well in its brass format simply because it is probably as close as Vaughan Williams got to ever writing a standalone fanfare/introductory work. The original version can be heard on the Chandos “British Wind Band Classics” where Timothy Reynish favours a grander more spacious tempo than Porthouse but the allocation of the lyrical second subject to the cornets in this new version sounds wonderfully idiomatic. The next two works are linked. The English Folk Songs Suite remains one of Vaughan Williams’ most perennially popular scores especially in the orchestral version by Gordon Jacob. The original wind band version had four movements but the composer thought two similar quick marches in the same suite was not ideal. One was excised and became the stand-alone Sea-Songs which is less well known than the suite but equally catchy and uplifting. Fine as the Jacob orchestration is, there is a pert bright-eyed ebullience to the original wind band version that neither the orchestral version or this brass band version can match. The extra tang of the wind instruments is key to that – something which the inherent richness and warmth of a brass band top line cannot emulate. That said the sound and textures here are a delight. It is very easy to take Vaughan Williams’ skilful integration of the numerous folk songs into a coherent score for granted as the work is so familiar. The central Intermezzo: My Bonny Boy is an absolute delight with the solo cornet capturing the essence of that beautiful folk melody to perfection. The outer movements are played with an appropriate lightness and rhythmic bounce at a reasonably measured tempo. According to the liner, the great Frank Wright made a band arrangement back in 1956 that has been popular with brass groups ever since but it was transposed down a 4th. For this recording a new edition has restored the original keys. I do not think I have heard the Wright version but certainly the performance here is excellent from first to last.
According to the liner it is unclear why Vaughan Williams chose to write an overture on Henry V for brass band. He mentioned the work as being “in my cupboard” in a letter to Arthur Bliss in 1942 but there are no records of any commission let alone performance during his lifetime. Musically Vaughan Williams makes use of traditional old songs such as the Agincourt Song and a French folk-song Magali. Other familiar tunes are used to illustrate the narrative of the famous battle. Of course, this work pre-dates Walton’s celebrated film score which unwittingly mines the same melodic resources. This work has had at least a couple of previous recordings; one on Chandos from the Grimethorpe band as part of a superb anthology entitled “Brass from the Masters Volume 2” and the other on CRD – the first recording I think – with James Stobart conducting the London Collegiate Brass. The Grimethorpe performance is especially imposing outshining this new Tredegar recording by the sheer weight and opulence of the Grimethorpe sound. This is reflected in a performance nearly a minute longer than the one given here. Certainly in either performance the work emerges as effective and enjoyable.
Away from bands, there are great traditions in Wales of choral singing and Chapels. That being the case perhaps it is not too great a leap to think that Vaughan Williams’ treatments of hymn tunes and Welsh ones in particular would receive especially empathetic performances on this disc. And so it proves. Paul Hindmarsh – who co-wrote the liner note and produced the disc – has fashioned the arrangement of the hymn tune The Truth from Above from a couple of sources; the Fantasia on Christmas Carols and the Vaughan Williams edited Oxford Book of Christmas Carols. The result is a relatively straight-forward but powerful presentation of one of Vaughan Williams’ great hymn tunes. Hindmarsh also prepared the performing editions for the next two works on this disc; the Prelude on Rhosymedre and suite from the film score 49thParallel which he prepared alongside Phillip Littlemore who oversaw the rest of the programme’s arrangements and editions. Rhosymedre originated as one of the Three Preludes for Organ with this brass arrangement made in 2008. It occupies a very similar emotional territory to the previous hymn and receives an equally moving performance.
One of the many remarkable features of Vaughan Williams’ creative life was the way he embraced new challenges and explored new musical opportunities relatively late in life. So it was with writing for film, which he did not do until his late sixties with his first film 49thParallel. The extended suite score can be heard on the second volume of the Chandos survey of Vaughan Williams’ film music – there is nearly three times as much music there as offered in this new fourteen minute selection for brass band. By definition this is a compressed survey of the music written for the film mainly focussing on drama and contrast rather than maintaining the original narrative flow. But as an enjoyable self-contained piece it works rather well. Of course the band cannot offer the breadth of textures and timbres the full orchestral original will but this work does offer the players the opportunity to display their technical and expressive range and as such is an excellent showcase for the band. The most well-known part of the score is the Prelude for which Vaughan Williams conjures up a quintessentially English heroic theme whose hymn-like quality sounds especially stirring in brass band garb.
The Prelude on Three Welsh Hymn Tunes receives another wholly idiomatic and uplifting performance. This is another late work written in 1954 for (and published by) The Salvation Army. Vaughan Williams’ especial genius in this instance is the way the music celebrates the music’s heritage while also being authentically of the composer – he makes no easy musical compromises to the prospective audience. Curiously for such an attractive work, it does not seem to have had that many recordings in its original brass band format. There was a version on Hyperion with David Honeyball conducting the London Virtuosi Brass and another rarer disc from the Cory Band on Doyen. I have not heard the latter and certainly the Tredegar Band’s authentic sound is more idiomatic than the otherwise excellent London ensemble.
I must admit wondering how well a band accompaniment to a tuba concerto might be too much of a good but brassy thing. In fact it works remarkably well. Helped in no small part by the excellence of the solo part played by Ross Knight. Knight is currently the principal tuba for L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. With limited top rank concerto repertoire available for tuba players, all of the previous recordings have been excellent. However, there is an alert wit to Knight’s playing that especially successful. The central Romanza is a particular gem – the composer’s use of this title telling since he reserved it for some of his most personal creations. Knight’s mellow and unforced tone is very well suited to this movement. The closing Rondo alla tedesca sounds more playful in Knight and Porthouse’s hands than it does for – say – Patrick Harrild and Bryden Thomson on Chandos. The tempi are very similar but the resonant Chandos recording and the original full orchestra writing gives the movement a more overtly dramatic character.
The disc closes with – quite literally – the most testing work on the disc. These are the Variations for Brass Band which Vaughan Williams wrote for the 1957 National Brass Band Championships as the test piece which all the entrants had to play. This is another remarkable piece in many ways – for a composer in their mid-80’s this is a fresh and inspired piece of writing. Often these kind of test works – written as a kind of technical exam for the players - can emphasise the ‘testing’ element at the cost of musical inspiration or coherence. Vaughan Williams places the musical merit of the work front and centre and it is only on reflection that the listener realises how the ensemble has run the entire gamut of musical and technical demands during the course of the variations. For this performance Martyn Brabbins takes over on the podium – earlier on the disc he conducts The Truth from Above and the Prelude on Rhosymedre to such good effect. Brabbins was responsible for one of the Variations most recent recordings in its original form. On Hyperion he conducted the nominal “Royal College of Music Brass Band” in a performance that was the coupling to his fine recording of A London Symphony. Although excellently played that performance in purely sonic and timbral terms was clearly not performed by an ensemble steeped in the Brass Band tradition. The sound has the brilliance of a symphonic brass ensemble – stunning in its own right but not a brass band. For that reason alone I would ignore that performance for comparative purposes. Again the catalogue is not exactly burdened by recordings of this impressive work – Black Dyke offer a fine version on Chandos again and there was a version on LP from Besses o’ th’ Barn which I do not think has ever made it onto CD. No matter – this new version holds its own against any and all – the variations are beautifully defined musically and wonderfully played technically.
Indeed that could be said about the entire programme but as it is it has a completely unique place in the catalogue. Where alternatives exist, the performances here are the equal of any but it is the collective value of this disc that makes it an important addition to the Vaughan Williams discography. If one disc from this 150th anniversary is going to make it into my “recordings of the year” I suspect it might well be this.