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RVW pan ALBCD054
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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. 15-16 September 2021, Henry Wood Hall, London, UK

The main event on this remarkable new CD from Albion is Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Pan’s Anniversary. Ever since my childhood discovery of “this secretive nature-god, protector of animals, who casts a spell of forgetfulness on all those he helps” in the pages of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, I have been a quiet devotee of the horned god. There are less-savoury aspects of this tutelary’s mythology that are not childlike. I have known about RVW’s masque since first being captivated by the composer more than 50 years ago and reading James Day’s 1961 biography: I guess I could never have imagined hearing the piece, as it seemed to be largely forgotten, and perhaps, beyond realisation.

First, a rough and ready definition of a “masque.” Simply put, it was a stage entertainment which developed to maturity in the 17th century. It laid considerable import on stage effects and presentation, as well as featuring songs, dances and spoken narratives. The subjects were typically inspired by Italian models and usually featured mythological, heroic or allegorical tropes.

The libretto of Pan’s Anniversary was written by the Cavalier poet Ben Johnson, with scenery and effects provided by Inigo Jones. The date of the premiere is disputed. The booklet opts for the 5th or 6th of January 1621. There is no surviving music from this performance.

John Francis explains that in the early years of the 20th century, there was a revival of interest in the Stuart court masques, several examples with texts by Johnson being produced between 1903 and 1912. The present work was granted only a single performance at Stratford-upon-Avon on Easter Monday, 24 April 1905. It was given in honour of William Shakespeare’s birthday.

RVW had been approached a mere six weeks prior to the event. To help him complete the score he co-opted his friend Gustav von Holst to make arrangements of the various dances. The masque is scored for three female soloists, choir, two actors and orchestra.

The plot of the masque is no big deal. It is easy to follow the script provided in the liner notes. All the words are given, as well as the spoken sections. Furthermore, the stage directions have been included. It also flags up those dances orchestrated by Gustav Holst. The landscape of Pan’s Anniversary is Arcadia, a region in the central Peloponnese of Greece.

Pan’s Anniversary has several threads running through it, of which the most significant is the four Hymns of Pan, which could easily be extracted as a standalone work. I have noted the spoken sections ably presented by Timothy West and Samuel West. In later developments of the masque form, these would become recitative. Then there are traditional tunes heard throughout the piece, comprising of several sixteenth century dances arranged for orchestra by Holst. The long Revels section (also by Holst) uses four English folk melodies including Sellinger’s Round, The Lost Lady, Maria Martin and All on Spurn Point. The entrances of the Thebans and the Boeotians feature the tunes Bristol Town and The Jolly Thresherman. Finally, the Antimasques are played by Thomas Gould on the violin. They derive from a collection of Morris Dances published in 1907.

Despite being made up of many disparate elements of speech, dance and song, Pan’s Anniversary is a remarkably consistent piece which is artistically satisfying in every way and contains moments of perfect beauty. It is a pleasure and a privilege to catch up with this work more than fifty years after reading about it described as having been “scrapped.”

The beautiful setting, Margery Wentworth was a sketch for an unfinished cycle using verses from Skelton’s long poem The Garland of Laurel. The scenario for this is that the Countess of Sussex and her ladies wove a garland for Skelton, and he in return “is conferring the immortality of fame on each of the eleven ladies with short descriptive poems.”  It is charming; there is nothing of the at times bawdy, often boisterous, sentiment of some of the Skelton texts chosen for the Tudor Portraits. This is a near perfect idyll, orchestrated by Christopher Gordon and beautifully sung by Johnny Herford. For the curious, Margery Wentworth (c.1478-1550) was the wife of Sir John Seymour. She was the mother of Henry VIII third wife Jane Seymour and cousin to the parents of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard.

I was particularly taken by the two Tennyson settings, Peace, Come Away and To Sleep! To Sleep!. The former was sketched in 1895, shortly after RVW had begun studies with Charles Villiers Stanford at the Royal College of Music and features voices and wind instruments. The text is taken from the poet’s long In Memoriam, written in memory of Arthur Henry Hallam. It To Sleep! To Sleep! is harder to date; the assumption in the liner notes is that it was finished in 1896, or possibly the early part of 1897. It is a wonderful bit of Victoriana, which makes no nods to the composer’s developing style, soon to be revealed in the Serenade in A minor, completed in 1898. The text is taken from Tennyson’s play, The Foresters. Despite its retro mood, this is a hauntingly beautiful setting. The present performing edition of both pieces was made by Christopher Gordon.

I am not sure about RVW’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis arranged for voices and strings by Timothy Burke. To be sure, it was a lockdown project, designed to “channel creativity, to stay connected with Sage’s Gateshead Community of artists and audiences, and to continue to work as a choir.” It was to be performed “digitally” by several [presumably] mobile phone connected singers and instrumentalists – some playing or singing more than one part. It was all somehow stitched together. The text used is Psalm No. 2, with certain pericopes omitted.

The present recording is the first with the participants under one roof. Overall, it is a massive polyphonic structure. I guess the hermeneutic for appreciating this reworking is to compare it to the American composer Samuel Barber’s arrangement of his Adagio for strings coupled with the text of the Agnus Dei. I have no doubt that this is a well-wrought arrangement, with many felicitous moments and it may well become popular. That said, I will not be returning to this adaptation in preference to the original arrangement for double string orchestra.

As a pendant to the above work is a verse from Thomas Tallis’s Third Mode Melody published in 1567 as one of nine tunes for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter. It was printed independently by Tallis, as Parker’s volume did not include music. “Why fum’th in sight the nations spite, in fury raging stout” is heard in a translation very different from the well-known Prayer Book or King James version. It is good to have this short piece as part of the corpus of RVW recordings.

All the performers are beyond reproach and are supported by a superb recording. The outstanding liner notes are by the RVW Society chairman and Albion Press and Production manager, John Francis, with additional material by Roger Savage and Christopher Gordon. The notes for the Tallis Fantasia are compiled by Timothy Burke. It would have been useful to have had composition dates provided in the track listing. The texts of all the works are incorporated and the entire booklet is enhanced by several photos of the choir and principals. The cover painting, Pan playing his pipes is by the Dutch artist Paulus Moreelse (1571-1638).

This new CD from Albion explores several byways of RVW’s career and it is great in particular to have a recording of Pan’s Anniversary. I am sure that this must have been a desideratum for many enthusiasts of the composer’s music. Overall, five world premiere recordings are featured on this disc, which makes a fitting 150th birthday gift to Ralph Vaughan Williams.

John France

Previous review: Nick Barnard

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