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RVW pan ALBCD054
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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Pan’s Anniversary, as adapted for the Shakespeare Birthday Celebration at Stratford-upon-Avon, Easter Monday 1905, with incidental music by Ralph Vaughan Williams and additional arrangements by Gustav Holst [41:21]
Margery Wentworth (1935) [4:08]
Peace, Come Away (1895) [3:38]
To Sleep! To Sleep! (1896) [6:29]
Thomas TALLIS (1505-1585)
Why Fum’th in Sight [1:01]
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (arr. for voices and strings by Timothy Burke) [15:11]
Mary Bevan, Sophie Bevan (sopranos) Jess Dandy (contralto), Johnny Herford (baritone)
Timothy West, Samuel West (speakers)
Britten Sinfonia/William Vann
rec. 2021, Henry Wood Hall, London

Another valuable contribution by Albion Records to the Vaughan Williams 150th Anniversary. As usual with this label, the music recorded here are unfamiliar indeed forgotten or never published works that are performed in authoritative editions by dedicated and skilled musicians. The disc takes its title from the main work; Pan’s Anniversary. This was a staging of Ben Johnson’s masque of the same name given in Stratford upon Avon on Easter Monday 1905 as part of the Shakespeare Birthday Celebrations. Apparently despite the amount of effort that went into the project, the size of the audience (around 1000 people) and its warm reception, the masque was never revived or performed again. According to the liner Vaughan Williams accepted the commission on March 6, 1905. Given that the performance was barely six weeks later on April 24, this does not leave much time to write, copy out, send to performers, rehearse and stage the work. The composer asked for a fee of twelve guineas (roughly 1500 in today’s money) but grudgingly accepted 5.00 instead. So condensed was the timeline that he sub-contracted the arranging of the dance sections of the masque to his close friend Gustav Holst and it is Holst’s versions of these old tunes that are carefully recreated here. In fact it is Holst’s arrangements that have been previously recorded on the Centaur label on a disc entitled; “Gustav Holst: Composer as Arranger” where Jon Ceander Mitchell conducts the Philharmonia Bulgarica. Holst’s very straightforward arrangement of Shepherd’s Hey [made much more famous by Percy Grainger] also appears on a Arte Nova collection with Ross Pople conducting the London Festival Orchestra as No.6 of Six Morris Dance Tunes. To be honest the presence of Holst’s name in this context is of historical rather than musical interest as he provides perfectly serviceable but ultimately rather anonymous arrangements that are more practical than inspired. But that said they are played here with far greater energy and verve than the frankly dull and lumpen performances on Centaur. Likewise the simple folk-dances included here for solo violin with or without a tabor-like side-drum are played with exactly the right spirit and lack of affectation by the leader of the Britten Sinfonia Thomas Gould.

The liner makes clear that exact text/length of the 1905 edition of Johnson’s Masque is not known so the version given here includes all of the music and enough of the text to make dramatic sense of the whole. This results in two spoken parts taken by Timothy West as The Shepherd and his son Samuel West as The Fencer. Of the forty one minute playing time, under five and a half are spoken and it has to be said that the two Wests find a very apt and playfully light style that seems to suit the mood of the work well. The spoken sections are given on separate tracks so easy enough to skip if required for repeated listening. Holst’s arrangements of the traditional dances and music from The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book (amongst other sources) accounts for another quarter hour of the work. Which leaves around twenty minutes of Vaughan Williams’ original music – although some of these are in turn folk arrangements. The core and main interest of the music are the four Hymns along with the opening rather ceremonial Introduction. Here and throughout the playing of the Britten Sinfonia is uniformly excellent with the generous acoustic of Henry Wood Hall in London a warmly supportive sound stage. Aside from the two spoken roles the main protagonists are the Three Nymphs sung by sopranos Mary and Sophie Bevan and contralto Jess Dandy and all three are excellent, their voices distinct but complimentary. What I find interesting across the whole work is how the style of the original masque is preserved without the result becoming a laboured pastiche. The fusion of folksong, ‘period’ music and original composition results in a work with an intriguingly fluid musical character.

Of course, in 1905 Vaughan Williams was still seeking his own individual voice and this is reflected in the Four Hymns. Hymn I – Of Pan we sing lilts along in an attractively pastoral ballad style with almost a Sullivan-esque lyrical flow but just now and again the melodic outline or touch of orchestration hints at the mature Vaughan Williams. Given that around 1905 he was working on some of the Songs of Travel settings as well as Towards the Unknown Region I suspect this simple and direct style was as much to do with the pressure of time and the demands of the performance/performers available rather than an unformed musical personality. Hymn II Pan is our all is the most overtly hymn-like of the three and as the liner points out there is musical kinship with the melody Vaughan Williams supplied to For All the Saints as part of his editorship of The English Hymnal. There is a bluff striding quality to this tune which again the liner points out has a strong similarity to Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore. Hymn III If yet, if yet has some other hints of melodies familiar from elsewhere. The text refers to “the nymphs of wood and water” and coincidentally or not the opening of this hymn did remind me of both the swirling waters of Smetana’s Vltava and From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields. But this is ‘flavour’ rather than plagiarism – the chorus used simply but effectively as an echo device is both beautiful and effective as music device and actual performance here. The three soloists again blend perfectly with Jess Dandy’s powerful contralto especially compelling. In terms of a specific musical effect skilfully achieved this is a musical highlight of the score. Hymn IV Great Pan is again in a flowing lyrical hymn style – less overtly ‘public school song’ than Hymn II with the composer finding a rather lovely balance between the pastoral and the rhertorical. This is especially so right towards the end of the hymn where the solo sopranos rise upwards in a phrase that seems to anticipate the ecstatic vocal writing in the Serenade to Music. Under William Vann’s direction the playing of the Britten Sinfonia feels absolutely right – expressive and poised.

Given that Vaughan Williams had already composed works in which his nascent original musical voice can be heard – In the Fen Country, Songs of Travel to take but two – Pan’s Anniversary does not represent a major missing link in his creative development. Instead the interest lies in the fusion of styles and genres by the creative team of Vaughan Williams and Holst to produce a musical work that is effective in its relatively modest remit as it is. I imagine their being able to make use of both folk-tunes and ‘Old English’ music by incorporating actual tunes and original melodies into the score was a practical expression of their shared musical creed.

There follows on the recording a group of three unrelated songs in new orchestrations based on the composer’s original sketches. The first of these is titled Margery Wentworth which is a setting of words by the Tudor poet John Skelton. Skelton provided the words for Vaughan Williams’ well-known Five Tudor Portraits and indeed the liner points out that the composer’s sketches for this ‘new’ song are to be found in the same book as a couple of the better-known Portraits. This has led to the conjecture that this might be a missing ‘6th Portrait’ but other evidence suggests that Vaughan Williams was considering a second Skelton anthology entitled The Garland of Laurel. It is not completely clear from the liner just how complete the surviving sketch is, instead it simply mentions that orchestrator Christopher Gordon took “some liberties to bring the work to life”. The result is a four minute setting sung here by baritone Johnny Herford with the Choir of Clare College providing fresh-voiced and expressive support alongside the Britten Sinfonia. The character of this song is so markedly different from the existing set of Portraits that even on a cursory listen it would seem to be part of a parallel project albeit one that never got beyond sketch form. In its own right this is a delightful addition to Vaughan Williams’ orchestral song catalogue. Johnny Herford sings with exactly the right lightness of vocal touch and appealing style – this is also a good example of the fine engineering on this disc with the balance between soloist, choir and orchestra expertly managed.

Gordon also provides the orchestrations for the other two songs; Peace, Come Away for voices and winds instruments and To Sleep! To Sleep! for choir and orchestra. The first song has a draft dated 1895 while the second is probably 1896 or 97. Both are settings of Tennyson with the particular interest in the latter being that it represents Vaughan Williams’ first work with orchestra. Both were written during studies with Stanford and there is a certain conscientiousness in the settings that smacks more of intellectual exercise rather than flood of inspiration. The voicing of the horns and wind in To Sleep! To Sleep! have an attractive Brahmsian richness that you can imagine Stanford would have approved of. Indeed there is more Brahms than Vaughan Williams in this setting!

The disc concludes with a recording that was initially a project brought about by the covid lockdowns. Conductor/arranger Timothy Burke prepared a vocal version of the Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis for the chorus of the Royal Northern Sinfonia. The resulting film called “The World How Wide” can be viewed on YouTube. As Burke explains in the liner note this was a digital-only project with some 650 individually recorded ‘takes’ by 135 singers being edited down into a coherent whole. When Burke was approached by William Vann about preparing a live performing edition he has created a different version again combining the forty or so voices of Clare College Choir with a string octet drawn from the Britten Sinfonia. To be clear the singing and playing is predictably fine although occasionally the highest soprano lines do suffer passing strain. It will be down to individual taste whether this arrangement is of lasting value. My personal sense is that the original covid project was interesting to hear and of clear worth to those involved. This new part-voice, part-string version adds little or nothing to one’s understanding and appreciation of the original work and falls between stools as a rather odd performing hybrid. Burke references the arrangement Samuel Barber did of his own Adagio for Strings to create the Agnus Dei. I think the comparison is flawed – there the Adagio was a distinct and separate work written in a different (and non religious) idiom. Here Burke takes Vaughan Williams’ instrumental treatment of a – brief – choral work and retro engineers it. The main problem is that the string lines and textures that Vaughan William created are so idiomatically for strings that returning them to a vocal form sounds – quite literally – forced. Effects that stun in the instrumental version sound contrived when sung. Quite why the string octet is deployed I am not sure unless it is to provide timbral contrast, pitch security and additional textures. Again I cannot fault the actual performance here but neither can I say it transported me in the way the original work never fails to do.

Overall another interesting disc beautifully performed and presented by Albion Records. All of the repertoire is of rather specialist interest – nothing here stands out as a lost masterpiece but instead the Masque and songs especially increase our knowledge and appreciation of the long road to mastery Vaughan Williams trod.

Nick Barnard

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