VW serenade ALBCD053
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Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
rec. 2018-2021

The album booklet sums up the ethos of this disc: “We’ve run out (just for the time being) of big presents for the composer, so we have a miscellany of smaller gifts for him – and for the discerning listener.” The celebration includes world premieres and material previously issued on the Albion label.

The programme begins with the short but vivacious Flourish for Three Trumpets. This was written at the behest of Maude Smith, Staffordshire County Music Advisor, to function as an opening gambit for RVW’s Festival Te Deum. Michael Kennedy in A Catalogue of the Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams (Oxford University Press, 1998) writes that the premiere performance was at the Stafford Borough Hall, on 19 March 1951. The liner notes here push the date back to 7 March of that year at the Girl’s High School, Bilston in the presence of 450 school children.

The Serenade to Music was one of the first RVW’s choral works that I heard. I was impressed with this thoughtful meditation on words from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. It was part of the iconic HMV LP (ASD 2847) that included The Lark Ascending with Hugh Bean as violin soloist, the Norfolk Rhapsody No 1, and In the Fen Country. Sir Adrian Boult coducted the New Philharmonia and the London Philharmonic Orchestras. It remains my go-to recording of all four pieces. Many years later, Richard Hickox included an orchestra-only version of the Serenade on EMI (DS 38129). The present organ transcription by David Briggs is wonderfully evocative. The power and colours of the instrument in Truro Cathedral bring out the poetic and deeply introspective character of the music. It would make an ideal (long) voluntary before Evensong.

The Three Folk Songs are a delight. She’s Like a Swallow, sung here by Mary Bevan, hails from Newfoundland and Labrador. It was collected by Maud Karpeles in 1930. This is an exquisite exploration of “unhappy love”. As the notes explain, Karpeles admitted that her “life would have been worthwhile if collecting this one song had been all she’s done”. The Winter’s Gone and Past, sung by Nicky Spence, was also gathered in Newfoundland and Labrador. Seemingly with Irish antecedents, it majors on the separation of lovers and the fond hope that she will find him in the Curragh of Kildare. Roderick Williams’s rendition of I will give my Love an Apple is a little more optimistic. It was noted down in 1906 in Sherborne, Dorset by the Hammond Brothers.

Four Cambridge Flourishes for Four Trumpets are played by the Members of the Tredegar Town Band. The pieces are not included in Kennedy’s Catalogue, but John Francis’s liner notes date them to around 1950/1951. It is not known for what purpose they were written. It is good to have a premiere performance of these largely unknown gems.

When I was at school, we still had Christian assemblies. Every so often the hymn of the day was For all the Saints, who from their labours rest. I thought then, and still do, that its tune Sine Nomine (without name) is one of the finest ever written. The full version is heard on this disc, well sung by the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea conducted by William Vann. The bonus is the powerful improvisation at the conclusion of this recessional hymn. We are asked to imagine the congregation “streaming out into the sunshine”. The recording is in two parts. The hymn was “laid down” in St Jude on the Hill, London, and David Briggs played the improvisation on the organ of Truro Cathedral.

Most listeners will know Overture: The Wasps, part of the incidental music completed in 1909 to Aristophanes’s eponymous Greek comedy. Some will know the five-movement suite which RWV extracted from the full score in 1912. Fewer people will have heard the Hallé Orchestra and Mark Elder’s performing edition of the play, which presents all the incidental music and much of the text (review). The March Past of the Kitchen Utensils is one of the most charming extracts from the score. This cheerful piece marks the entry of the witnesses for the defence in the courtroom scene. It would make a great recessional on a Festival Day. David Briggs made the organ arrangement.

The Suite for Four Hands on One Pianoforte was a 1893 “student exercise”, when RVW was studying with Charles Hubert Hastings Parry. The liner notes suggest that one should not seek intimations of the composer’s development. Stylistically, the piece looks toward Bach and Handel. There is plenty to entertain in the four movements: Prelude, Minuet, Sarabande and Gigue. The recording, originally on ALBCD047 (review), includes a revision of the Minuet, made to satisfy Parry’s comments. It would have been useful if the soloists included the original sketch, for completeness.

Three short organ arrangements follow. Introspection and reticence seem to be the main feature. Variations on Aberystwyth is a transcription by Herbert Byard of the third movement of Household Music which RVW wrote in 1940 for string quartet, with various possible instrumental substitutions. It is followed by Pezzo ostinato, arranged by Len Rhodes. It is the final number of Birthday Gifts: Three short pieces for pianoforte. This suite was published in 1994, based on earlier compositions. The Pezzo dates from 1905. The final transcription, also by Byard, is The Call from the accomplished Five Mystical Songs from 1911. The liner notes correct say that there is no flamboyance in these three organ pieces [played at] Rugby School by Charles Matthew.

The mood of introspection is maintained with the flawlessly wrought Two Carols from Herefordshire, which Paul Hindmarsh arranged for brass band last November. Joseph and Mary and the Coverdale Carol were extracted from the Oxford Book of Carols (1928). What results is a perfect brass band idiom.

Most RVW enthusiasts will regard his Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus for harp and string orchestra as one of the masterpieces for this medium. Originally arranged as the hymn tune Kingsfold, it appeared in the 1906 English Hymnal to the words “I heard the voice of Jesus say”. It is used in the English Folksong Suite (1923), the Oxford Book of Carols and the Nine Carols for male voices (1941). The booklet states that the latter collection was “to be sung by British troops stationed in Iceland”. It is given a beautiful performance by the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea and their director William Vann.

The final work makes a strange bedfellow. Much of RVW’s hymn arranging and editing had been geared towards the High Anglican musical aesthetic – English Hymnal and Songs of Praise. It may be a surprise that he took one of the archetypical Evangelical standards from the Moody and Sankey school of hymnology. Despite its obvious sentimentality, God be With You till We Meet Again is a lovely “tender hymn of farewell”. RWV composed the tune in appropriate style, and dedicated to his friend and cousin Ralph Wedgewood, always addressed by him as Randolph.

I cannot fault anything about the production of this CD. The performances, dedicated and satisfying, are enhanced by the outstanding sound quality. John Francis’s liner notes are outstanding. Sadly, the dates of several of the pieces and arrangements are not included. The cover reproduces David Bulmer’s portrait of RV.

I remember well the 100th birthday celebrations in 1972, when I was a secondary school pupil just coming to grips with RWV’s music. I hope that many purchasers of this CD will be around to celebrate Ralph Vaughan Williams’s bicentenary; I will not be one of them. The present offering is a delight that will charm for many years to come.

John France

Previous review: Nick Barnard

Contents and performers
Flourish for Three Trumpets (1951)
Members of the Tredegar Town Band
Serenade to Music for organ (arr. David Briggs, 1938/2021?)
David Briggs (organ)
Three Folk Songs
I. She’s Like a Swallow (1934)
II. The Winter’s Gone and Past (1934)
III. I will give my Love an Apple (1917)
Mary Bevan (soprano, I), Nicky Spence (tenor, II), Roderick Williams (baritone, III), William Vann (piano)
Four Cambridge Flourishes for Four Trumpets, Numbers 1 and 2 (1950/1951?)
Members of the Tredegar Town Band
For all the Saints (1906)
Improvisation (2021)
Joshua Ryan (organ), David Briggs (organ), Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea/William Vann
Four Cambridge Flourishes for Four Trumpets, Numbers 3 and 4 (1950/1?)
Members of the Tredegar Town Band
March Past of the Kitchen Utensils (from The Wasps) for organ (arr. David Briggs, 1909/2021)
David Briggs (organ)
Suite for Four Hands (1893)
Lynn Arnold, Charles Matthews (piano duet)
Variations on Aberystwyth for organ (arr. Herbert Byard, 1940/1949)
Charles Matthews (organ)
Pezzo Ostinato for organ (arr. Len Rhodes, 1905/?)
Charles Matthews (organ)
The Call (from Five Mystical Songs) for organ (arr. Herbert Byard 1911/1946)
Charles Matthews (organ)
Two Herefordshire Carols for brass band (arr. Paul Hindmarsh, 1928/2021)
Tredegar Town Band/Ian Porthouse
Nine Carols for male voices
IX. Dives and Lazarus (1942)
Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea/William Vann
God be With You till We Meet Again (Randolph) (1906?)

Published: October 4, 2022