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Ralph Vaughan Williams (1972-1958)
Pan’s Anniversary (1905)
Margery Wentworth (1935, orch. Christopher Gordon)
Peace, Come Away (1895, ed. Christopher Gordon)
To Sleep! To Sleep! (c.1896, ed. Christopher Gordon)
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910/2020) (arr. for voices and strings by Timothy Burke)
Thomas Tallis (1505-1585)
Why Fum’th in Sight (from Archbishop Parker’s Psalter) (1567)
Mary Bevan, Sophie Bevan (sopranos), Jess Dandy (contralto), Johnny Herford (baritone)
Timothy West, Samuel West (narrators)
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge/Graham Ross
Britten Sinfonia/William Vann
rec. 2021, Henry Wood Hall, London, UK

Pan's Anniversary, or The Shepherd's Holyday was a masque for the Royal Court of James I (James VI of Scotland) written by Ben Jonson. It was a lavish affair, designed by Inigo Jones and first performed in the 1620s, though the precise date is not certain. There would have been dance and song, but none of the music has yet come to light.
There was a revival of interest in Jacobean masques in the early 20th century, and Vaughan Williams and his great friend Gustav Holst provided the missing music for a performance on April 24th, 1905 at Stratford-on-Avon. As the excellent booklet notes tell us, ‘in the absence of either Pan or James I, the spectacle was given in Honour of Shakespeare’s birthday’ (which was April 26th – close enough!).

Holst provided four of the original items – enough for me to feel that the titling of the disc, which mentions only Vaughan Williams, is a tad misleading. I know it’s the 150th anniversary, but still …

Otherwise, ‘Pan’s Anniversary’ is a light-hearted affair, though with some typically lovely music from VW including the short but splendid Introduction, which has the character of a processional, prefaced by a grand fanfare. The short passages of Ben Jonson’s text are delivered by the Wests, Timothy and Samuel with characteristic verve. The singers feature another family pair, this time sopranos Mary and Sophie Bevan, with the contralto Jess Dandy, who, with her resonant lower register, might well be channelling Dame Clara Butt at times (and not inappropriately!). The chorus, with all three soloists, ‘Of Pan We Sing’ is particularly attractive, and if the next ensemble number, ‘Pan is Our All’, seems familiar, it’s because it bears a strong family resemblance to VW’s own great hymn tune ‘Sine Nomine’, usually sung to ‘For All the Saints’. Perhaps the most striking music of all is in the last of VW’s choruses, ‘Great Pan’, which achieves an ending of stunning beauty.

Holst provided the lovely Pavan which follows that, a straightforward piece of stylistic appropriation, reminiscent perhaps of the Warlock of the ‘Capriol Suite’. But his most substantial contribution is to be found in The Revels, a sequence of five traditional dance melodies, in Holst’s lively and attractive arrangements (Holst was under extreme time-pressure, the notes tell us, so these were written at express speed!)

The Clare College Choir perform well throughout, and the chorus ‘If Yet, If Yet’, with the sopranos echoing the soloist, is a great success. The Britten Sinfonia play stylishly, even if they might have benefited from a desk or two more of strings to fill out the sound. The whole piece is a treat, and much thanks goes to the British music specialist Peter Clulow who worked hard to prepare the scores for this recording (sadly, he died last year after suffering from Covid – I do hope he had a chance to hear some of the results of his work).

The CD is completed by five more tracks of considerable interest. The first three are individual choruses of great beauty: ‘Margery Wentworth’, to words by the Tudor poet John Skelton, has a baritone solo sung with the utmost sensitivity by Johnny Herford: the Tennyson setting, ‘Peace, come away’, is for choir and wind: but the stand-out number of these is the magical ‘To Sleep! To Sleep!’, text also by Tennyson, which is a real find - not least because it can claim to be VW’s first piece for orchestra. I must complement Christopher Gordon and John Francis for their excellent and comprehensive booklet notes about all the music, including all relevant text material. They provide a model of how this sort of thing can be done, something that all recording companies could learn from!

The last two tracks contain, firstly, a performance of Thomas Tallis’s Third Mode Melody, on which Vaughan Williams based his famous Fantasia. That is followed by the choir and orchestra coming together for a new arrangement of that Fantasia for choir and string octet. This is an impressively skilful piece of work by Timothy Burke, who is a conductor and arranger based in the North-East of England. It is fascinating to read how this arrangement came into being originally as a project for the Chorus of the Royal Northern Sinfonia during the lockdown, using digital techniques and mobile phones. Of course it had to be re-created for this performance in ‘real time’, and the Clare College singers have done an amazing job in producing such a valuable recording. I was sceptical at first – with a much-loved masterpiece such as this, it is so very difficult to get past the memory of the unique sound-world that the piece inhabits. But I believe the arrangement does work, creating a similar sense of spacing, near and far, that is such a crucial feature of VW’s original (which is itself, as Burke points out in his notes, a sort of arrangement).

Although there are one or two minor lapses of intonation, and the basses’ tone does occasionally give away their youth, this was a tremendous achievement. And whoever was the top soprano, dealing so courageously with that stratospheric line – she deserves at least a medal! Quite wonderful.

This whole disc has a feeling of being made con amore, and I’d like to congratulate all those involved, including Albion Records and the RVW Society, for such an enterprising and enjoyable production.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

Previous reviews: Nick Barnard ~ John France