Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
The New Collector’s Edition
rec. 1965-1995, London, Liverpool, Manchester. ADD/DDD
WARNER CLASSICS 9029624537 [30 CDs: c.35hrs]
We have travelled this path before. In 2008 EMI Classics (as it then was) issued the same 30CD set under the title The Collector’s Edition: The Masterpieces – The Greatest Artists. It was reviewed here in that format. I say ‘the same’ 30CD set; not quite. There are differences but the differences are in presentation.
The 30 CDs are identical in both the old 2008 and new 2022 editions. They offer the same tried and tested recordings that have graced the EMI ‘halls’ since the 1970s …. and in come cases earlier. EMI recorded RVW in unswerving, sovereign fashion and quantity from the mid-1960s to the 1990s. As for the ‘New’ in the title of the box, it relates to design and usability. ‘New’ is not, therefore, a marker for additional content such as DG and Universal packed into their “The New Stravinsky Complete Edition” by comparison with the original set.
The New set has been stunningly repackaged. The coffer style case is bigger than the 2010 box. It’s about an inch larger in terms of the occupied shelf space. This is accounted for by the fact that each disc nestles in its own individual thick card sleeve. This imparts a more de luxe ‘look and feel’ and the discs are easier to find and lift out from the box. The box itself carries a colourised photograph of Vaughan Williams at, perhaps, age 45.
The New booklet has a radically compressed overview of the life and times and this runs to only two pages. The author is Stephen Johnson who wrote it in 1993. It’s in English, German and French. There’s a one-page synopsis of the Boult rehearsal of Pilgrim’s Progress. Next comes an Index of Works so you can identify the CD on which a particular work can be found. That’s a useful new facility.
You no longer have to endure the ‘plain Jane’ flimsy white envelopes used in the 2008 set. The New hard-card pockets identify the number of the disc front and back and list each work and track. At the end of the New 16-page booklet Warner have listed the titles and painters for the different paintings that grace each of the thirty discs. The prominent names amongst the painters are Philip W Steer (one of Holbrooke’s numerous artist friends), and J E Millais. No doubt there were other, perhaps commercial, reasons but all credit to Warner’s design contractor for seeking out paintings by the lesser names such as Conder, Leader, Strang and Fanner among many others. Warner adopted a similar approach for the label’s Complete Debussy box (33 CDs).
As to recordings featured you should look at the linked review for the 2008 set. However, given that in the first review, I skimmed my way through the packed-full content let me try to pick up some things that I glossed over some 14 years ago.
Dives and Lazarus Variants is indeed a noble and very beautiful work. It was deployed for the 1939 World Fair in New York alongside Bax’s Seventh and Bliss’s torridly romantic Piano Concerto. On the string orchestra disc the Concerto Grosso is a beefy, emotional and kinetic score. I would never have guessed that it was written for massed amateur forces, but you can tell as much on a two-LP set proudly produced for the London schools in 1972 (centenary year). As for Vernon Handley whose choice for the nine symphonies might seem “left field”, he - as a Boult protégé - always held a torch for RVW: witness a mid-1960s 45 rpm of A Vision of Aeroplanes. There he conducted the Guildford Proteus Singers years before he recorded Moeran and Finzi with them for Revolution Records. Handley was an enterprising choice even then. The symphonies, on CFP etc, lay in the future. While EMI/Warner have opted for Handley’s mid-1990s RLPO symphony cycle they tracked back to Boult for his Job rather than Handley’s. There’s plenty of other Boult as well and not just in the choral-orchestral works.
The three-movement Violin Sonata with the violin of Hugh Bean (then part of the Music Group of London) is well worth your attentive listening time. The Sonata is underestimated and of considerable substance. Here it is flooded with a passion that belies the fact that the composer had only another four years to live when the Sonata was completed. There’s nothing here of the feebleness of a venerable old age. Ideas burst forth and beauty positively effervesces. Bean and pianist David Parkhouse press plenty of drama and emotion into their reading and the recording is good for 1974. The music is nicely nuanced, not least in the long finale’s Tema con variazioni. Bean’s Lark Ascending (which is also here) for years held court as the coupling on a Boult-conducted LP of the Sixth Symphony. It can be heard in all its pristine awe on CD9. Among the other chamber works there are two really good readings of the two string quartets but each by different ensembles.
As I have implied, the Handley symphony cycle is soundly chosen and imaginatively delivered. If the fancy takes you, alternative cycles worth trying include the Hickox (largely achieved before that conductor’s death) on Chandos. The individual Hickox CDs are worth tracking down as they include neglected RVW fare and unfamiliar versions. These add-ons (not meant to demean) are otherwise the section of the RVW catalogue done with much spirit and style by Albion, Dutton and EM Records.
Symphony cycles now proliferate. Some are complete; others are en route towards complete or are ‘in fragment’. I still find much to enthuse about in Previn’s 1960s effort which was contemporary with Boult’s. Much later, and as a purgative and fresh choice, try Rozhdestvensky on Melodiya if you can find it. Easier to source is Leonard Slatkin’s cycle of nine on RCA-BMG. Vaughan Williams spent much time in the USA and I would listen also to some other US recordings: Abravanel’s wonderful Dona and Symphony 6, Bernstein’s and Mitropoulos’s 6th and Stokowski’s Ninth. His Fourth is also worth your ear-time as is that by the composer. Kees Bakels did not record all nine but his Naxos set is not to be sniffed at and neither is Haitink’s. Speaking of other discs (not the symphonies) I single out a very miscellaneous and some would say ‘bitty’ but thoroughly beguiling set from the early 2000s from Chandos.
Sargent's Tallis Fantasia is now approaching 65 years old. However, it sounds fine and while it lacks Barbirolli's rapt intensity and ecstatic concentration it is no mean thing … if slightly hurried. Tempi can be an issue with Sargent but he has a sumptuous way with symphonies 6 and 9 - the latter of which he premiered in 1958. Try to hear the new Somm CD of those two symphonies. If you catch the RVW-Sargent ‘bug’ then you are catered for by the Sargent box which has an abundant slice of “studio” RVW on CD11 in Warner’s Icon boxed set: The Wasps: Overture; Greensleeves Fantasia, Tallis Fantasia, Serenade to Music, Toward the Unknown Region (an early foray into Walt Whitman that used to be found on a very early CFP LP) and the Harmonica Romance written for Larry Adler. Sargent’s pioneering 1920s extracts from the ballad opera Hugh the Drover (a feeble work once issued on a Pearl LP) are side-stepped. Speaking of the operas the Poisoned Kiss (actually very entertaining and winsome) can only be had on Chandos (Hickox) but Pilgrim’s Progress is there complete in the New Edition (and the old), as is Sir John in Love - a most comely work which often outpoints Pilgrim which in any event is less an opera and more of ‘A morality’ as the composer termed it. A shame that nothing can be done to realise RVW’s Thomas The Rhymer which was left incomplete on the composer’s death.
Barbirolli recordings of several of the symphonies (2, 6 and 8 amongst them) can be had elsewhere, but he is ‘in’ the Warner box in Philip Catelinet’s assumption of the Tuba Concerto. He was the soloist at the premiere. This work should not be overlooked and you must surely treasure its central Romanza. Recidivist that I am, I also commend highly the RCA-BMG recording made by John Fletcher with Previn.
John Westbrook’s ‘high’ spoken English in An Oxford Elegy boils over with oratory, exalted vocabulary and nostalgia; deeply moving stuff. Hodie and the Tudor Portraits are both present and more than correct - richly enjoyable in fact. They are present in classic and enjoyable versions jostling with the great pillars such as Dona Nobis Pacem, the Five Mystical Songs, the Serenade to Music (written for Henry Wood and sixteen named singers and here in no fewer than three versions). Benedicite and even Sancta Civitas only intermittently engage me as works but that’s just me. The Mass leaves me unmoved; same rider. No such ‘doubts’ about Flos Campi, which is another cherishable discovery if you do not already know it. As they say, it is neither concerto nor choral piece. It is sui generis and rough magic indeed. It must be heard.
The early Cambridge Mass and Folksongs of the Four Seasons are absent but can be heard on Albion who will perhaps, one day, record another mysterious score: RVW’s 35-minute work for soprano, choir and orchestra, The Future - realised and premiered in Glasgow in recent years by Martin Yates.
Vaughan Williams’ film music is sampled in ‘Dawn Patrol’ from Coastal Command, and the Prelude from 49th Parallel (a good, if slightly rushed reading by Hickox). The Blake Songs for tenor and oboe also derive from a film score. Sinfonia Antartica draws on the composer’s score for perhaps the strongest of the films he served, Scott of the Antarctic (a frequent visitor to the television screen). Not to be forgotten is that, when Decca recorded the Sinfonia first, they prefaced each movement with John Gielgud intoning the poems and texts (Shelley, Coleridge, Donne, Psalms and Captain Scott himself) with which the composer superscribed each movement. They remained in place to be heard on the Decca Eclipse LPs and then in Decca’s mono Boult-box of the nine symphonies. Beyond Warner’s box you need to find Dutton’s excellent complete music to Scott of the Antarctic and for a more general and all-embracing conspectus, Chandos’s stunning three-CD set of the RVW’s cinema music.
Downsides cannot be avoided, even if there are so many strengths in this New edition. The documentation does not take you, even ankle-high, into the composer’s life and the background to each work. For that there are many mainstream books but why not, for a rapid summation, try Simon Heffer’s life of RVW or for something more deeply delved and composer-personal, John Alldritt’s Vaughan Williams - Composer, Radical, Patriot. It’s an excellent read. The sung and spoken words are nowhere to be found in this Warner New Collector’s Edition. You will need to run them to ground, if you can, by Google searches.
All of that said, where else can you on such terms acquire a library’s worth of RVW. It’s all soundly and imaginatively chosen and arrives next to your CD player in one fell swoop.
Previous review: Jonathan Woolf (9/22)
Vaughan Williams review index
A Sea Symphony - Joan Rodgers; William Shimell; RLPO/Vernon Handley
London Symphony; Symphony No. 8 – RLPO/Vernon Handley
‘Pastoral’ Symphony; Symphony No. 4 Alison Barlow; RLPO/Vernon Handley
Oboe Concerto; Symphony No. 5 - Jonathan Small; RLPO/Vernon Handley
Symphonies Nos. 6; 9 – RLPO/Vernon Handley
Serenade to Music (choral), Partita for Double String Orchestra, Sinfonia Antartica – RLPO/Vernon Handley
The Wasps Suite, Prelude and Fugue in C minor, Piano Concerto in C - Piers Lane (piano); LPO/Vernon Handley; RLPO/Vernon Handley
Piano Concerto in C for two pianos, Job - Vitya Vronsky, Victor Babin (pianos); LPO and LSO/Adrian Boult
Serenade to Music (16 soloists), English Folk Songs Suite (orchestra), Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1, The Lark Ascending, Greensleeves Fantasia, In the Fen Country - Hugh Bean (violin); LSO/Adrian Boult; New Philharmonia Orchestra/Adrian Boult
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, English Folk Songs Suite (band), Sea Songs march (band), ‘Dawn Patrol’, Concerto Grosso, Tuba Concerto, Harmonica Romance - various artists
Serenade to Music (orchestra-only), Poisoned Kiss overture, Old King Cole - ballet, Five Mystical Songs, Sea Songs march (orchestral), Running Set, 49th Parallel - Prelude; Northern Sinfonia of England/Richard Hickox
Variations for Brass Band (orch Gordon Jacob), Concerto accademico for violin and orchestra in D minor, String Quartet No. 1, Three preludes (II; III), Two Hymn Tune Preludes - Bradley Cresswick (violin); Bournemouth SO/Richard Hickox; Northern Sinfonia of England/Richard Hickox; Britten Quartet
Violin Sonata in A minor, String Quartet No. 2, Phantasy Quintet, Six Studies in English Folk Song (cello) - Music Group of London
Toward the Unknown Region, Dona nobis pacem, Magnificat - LPO / Adrian Boult
An Oxford Elegy, Flos campi, Whitsunday Hymn, Sancta Civitas - KCC / LSO / David Willcocks
Five Tudor Portraits, Benedicite, Five variants of Dives and Lazarus - John Carol Case / Bach Choir / New Phil Orch / LSO / David Willcocks
Hodie, Fantasia on Christmas Carols (w/strings and organ) - Janet Baker / Bach Choir / LSO / David Willcocks
Fantasia on Christmas Carols (w/orch), In Windsor Forest, Songs of travel, On Wenlock Edge - various
Mass in G minor, All People that on Earth Do Dwell, Te Deum in G, Three Preludes on Welsh Hymn tunes, other sacred choral works - King’s College / David Willcocks
Four Hymns, Merciless Beauty, Ten Blake Songs, On Wenlock Edge - Ian Partridge / Music Group of London
The House of Life, Songs of Travel (piano) - Anthony Rolfe Johnson / David Willison
Songs with piano, choral folksong arrangements - Various Artists
Solo folksong arrangements, A Song of Thanksgiving - LPO / Adrian Boult
Epithalamion, Riders to the Sea - LPO / David Willcocks / Orchestra Nova of London / Meredith Davies
CD 25-CD 26
Hugh the Drover - Robert Tear / Sheila Armstrong / Michael Rippon / Robert Lloyd / Choristers of St Paul's Cathedral / RPO / Charles Groves
CD 27-CD 28
Sir John in Love - Felicity Palmer / Robert Tear / Robert Lloyd / Helen Watts / New Philharmonia Orch / Meredith Davies
CD 29-CD 30
Pilgrim's Progress and rehearsal sequence - Ian Partridge / John Shirley-Quirk / Jean Temperley / John Noble / LP Choir / LPO / Adrian Boult
Published: October 12, 2022