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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
A London Symphony (1920 version, arr. Archibald Jacob) [44:33]
Elizabeth MACONCHY (1907-1994)
Preludio, Fugato e Finale (1967) [8:34]
Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)
Eclogue (arr. Howard Ferguson, adapted Charles Matthews, 1929/1952) [11:11]
Lyn Arnold (piano), Charles Matthews (piano – organ in Finzi)
rec. 7-9 January 2021 (Vaughan Williams, Maconchy), West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge, UK; 21 March 2021 (Finzi) Rugby School

Hopefully 2022 as the 150th Anniversary of the birth of Ralph Vaughan Williams will see a flood of new and inspiring recordings. Albion Records as the vigorously active recording arm of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society seem to be leading the way with two new releases featuring his music. Important to say straight away that these discs continue the exceptionally high musical, production and performance values of the label. If you enjoy Vaughan Williams’ music, and indeed music by British 20th century composers in general, they will be a delight from first to last.

First is a disc of music for piano duet with the 2 piano transcription of A London Symphony (No.2) as its centrepiece. This is a premiere recording of Arthur Jacob’s 1924 adaptation of the 1920 published version of this wonderful score. Apart from the interest in a two piano arrangement, for many aficionados the use of the 1920 score will be especially enticing. For many years it was the accepted performing norm to use the 1936 ‘final’ version of this score with a note from the composer categorically stating that this version now superseded all others. Yet, even at the time many contemporaries of Vaughan Williams felt that in an effort to give this impressionistic and occasionally discursive score a more rigorous structure, the composer had excised several passages of great beauty. As such the 1920 version can be seen as a mid-way point between the occasionally rambling 1913 original and the pruned final version. Interestingly, I am not sure that any arranger returned to the work post-1936 to create a definitive later transcription – Vally Lasker also made a solo piano arrangement of the 1920 score.

Aside from the technical excellence of their playing, piano duettists Lynn Arnold and Charles Matthews are convincing interpreters of the score. There are two other modern recordings of the 1920 version from Martyn Brabbins and the BBC SO on Hyperion and Martin Yates and the RSNO on Dutton. In this instance timings are instructive as they reflect the overall approaches of the artists concerned. Generally Arnold/Matthews are the swiftest of the 3 performances across all movements – their Scherzo/Nocturne is a ‘dead-heat’ with Yates. In the other movements there are substantial differences especially with Brabbins. His opening Lento-Allegro risoluto is 14:50 to the Arnold/Matthews 13:01, the Lento 12:59 to 11:08 and the Finale/Epilogue 15:52 to 13:12. I suspect that quite a part of this difference can be put down to the technical impossibility of sustaining orchestral passages built on long held chords on a keyboard. Arranger Jacob’s ‘standard’ answer of keyboard ‘woggles’ or added arpeggiations do the job without being wholly musically convincing hence the performers decision to move through these passages rather than linger lovingly in the way the BBC SO allows Brabbins to do. The benefits of piano/2 piano reductions are the extra clarity that is given to the harmonic and melodic lines within the music and in this respect Arnold and Matthews are excellent. I do feel that the basic tempo of the Scherzo/Nocturne is too fast both here and with Yates. Not that any of the musicians are technically found wanting, just that the spirit of the music in the movement needs something a fraction steadier and good humoured.

Of all Vaughan Williams’ orchestral scores it could be argued that this Symphony is the most pictorial and to achieve this, the composer employs some marvellously evocative orchestral effects; from the bleached chimes of Big Ben in the witching-hour opening or the gently rapturous string-led ‘churchyard’ in the opening movement to the viola solo lavender-seller, organ-grinder horns or the proto ascending lark of the closing bars. Musically, these are all wonderful moments but it is their orchestral garb that makes them supremely moving. Arnold/Matthews are never less than very very good but they simply cannot create that aural magic. I did have just a little niggling wonder whether in some small part Jacob’s arrangement which certainly works but rarely sounds that imaginative in its transferral of orchestra to keyboard was to blame. One thing that this new recording does do is to underline the virtues of the 1920 version. Simply put, between first and final version Vaughan Williams cut some 145 bars with the 1920 version still 50 bars longer than the final revision. The opening movement is all but unchanged across all versions, the lento a dozen bars longer from 1920 to 1934, the scherzo the same. The major difference is a finale that is eleven bars longer with the epilogue a further twenty five. Arnold/Matthews are excellent in this extended finale/epilogue. The benefit to the work as a whole is a greater sense of return to the opening ‘dawn’ music and although the music is not cyclic per-se this extended epilogue does underline the emotional completion of the circle. Perhaps Vaughan Williams felt that an epilogue should not be a full one third of the entire movement bar-wise but in performance as here the sense of resolution and arrival is very compelling.

A sense of what can be achieved by two pianos – each with a distinct role and voice is given by Elizabeth Maconchy’s tersely impressive Preludio, Fugato e Finale. The work was composed in 1967 but appears never to have been published. Felix Aprahamian gave the concert premiere a typically astute welcome but it seems to have all but disappeared since. The liner notes the close and enduring friendship between Vaughan Williams and his pupil Maconchy. Her sound world is quite different from that of the older composer but she packs a remarkable range of moods and styles into the compact eight and a half minutes duration. As written and as very clearly caught in producer/engineer Michael Ponder’s excellent recording the interaction between the two independent keyboard/voices makes this a very rewarding piece for listeners and players alike.

I must admit I approached the closing work on the disc with minor trepidation. Gerald Finzi’s Eclogue is one of his better known and more popular works in its original piano and orchestra form. The original – unplayed at the time of the composer’s death - was edited for both standard performance and in a two piano reduction by Finzi’s friend and colleague Howard Ferguson. I initially wondered if this two piano version needed further adaptation to give us the piano and organ version performed here. Actually, this is an absolute delight and wholly successful. The origin of the work was as the slow movement of a piano concerto Finzi conceived in the late 1920’s. Finzi began to work on the work’s orchestration in the early 1950’s but it only achieved its name (derived from the Greek for a poem on a pastoral theme) and first performance at a Finzi memorial concert in 1957. Lynn Arnold plays the solo piano part and Charles Matthews his own adaptation of the Ferguson orchestral reduction on organ. The repertoire for piano and organ combined is tiny but this would be a significant addition regardless. The practical problems are legion; finding two instruments compatible in pitch and scale are just the starters. If Michael Ponder’s skill was evident in the earlier two works it verges on genius here. The balance of the two instruments is absolutely ideal – impossibly natural and clear. Arnold’s performance of the solo part is simply perfection; limpid and poised, sensitive and elegant. Likewise the benefit of an organ as accompanist is also clear – Finzi’s long sustained lines can be reproduced without any of the concerns for maintaining of tone or balance mentioned in the Symphony before. Matthews’ choices of registration are discreet and sensitive. At the very opening, during the extended solo piano the ear is aware of the organ bellows hissing gently in the background but this is no real distraction. Eclogue does seem to embody the essence of Finzi’s elegiac melancholy and in turn this performance captures that to perfection.

I am a member of the Vaughan Williams Society, so no doubt I am likely to be biased both as to the quality of the music and its performance and presentation here. But even allowing for that, this is a wonderful disc played and produced with empathy and insight. If every disc of the anniversary year matches this one, we are in for a bumper celebration.

Nick Barnard

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