VW serenade ALBCD053
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Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
rec. 2018-21

This disc by the indefatigable Albion Records is scheduled for release as near as possible to the exact 150th anniversary of Vaughan Williams’ birth on October 12th 2022. I can think of no other composer whose dedicated society has been so extensive and comprehensive in its exploration of their work. This year alone, Albion will have released eight new albums with the aptly titled Serenade the last. As John Francis says in his typically detailed and informative note, this is not some kind of sampler or semi-random collection, rather an appendix to the various and varied programmes so carefully and lovingly compiled in recent years. Of the nineteen tracks, five have been previously released – this totals roughly eighteen minutes worth of the total running time of sixty seven. But even those ‘reprised’ pieces have been placed within the overall arc of the programme to give the listener an experience which is both individually rewarding and collectively satisfying.

Anyone familiar with Albion’s previous releases will know that they have set a gold standard in terms of performances, recordings and presentation and that is instantly evident again here. All of the pieces new to disc were recorded at sessions which have resulted in earlier releases where space or context did not allow for their previous inclusion. Hence the sense of this being an appendix to those earlier releases. Nothing on this disc would be argued as being ‘vital’ Vaughan Williams but instead they are all fascinating and often beautiful examples of his craft and spirit. One of my favourite releases of this anniversary year was the recent disc of music for Brass Band played by the excellent Tredegar Town Band. From those sessions come the Flourish for Three Trumpets, the Four Cambridge Flourishes for Four Trumpets (split into two groups of two) and Two Herefordshire Carols arranged by Paul Hindmarsh. None of the flourishes (I like the note in the liner where Vaughan Williams requests “Flourish please which is good English – not Fanfare which is bad French”) are that characteristic – the liner explains that Vaughan Williams’ writing is all but illegible that they are not sure it even says Cambridge! Ever practical the composer suggests a variety of instruments as options with the brilliant D trumpets preferred – here they are played on the warmer B flat trumpets with all the requisite flair and technique if not the last ounce of brio the D trumpets might have provided. The Hindmarsh arrangements of the carols are absolute gems – simple in the best sense and played with sincerity and total lack of affectation.

A major addition to the Vaughan Williams discography has been the rightly-praised four disc set of his complete folksong settings for solo voice and piano. At those sessions the singers were asked to record a favourite setting that they were not allocated for the principal releases. So the three songs offered here are new performances of settings that appear in the earlier survey. All the artistic qualities of the main set are repeated here with beautiful singing from the soloists and sensitive accompaniments by William Vann. Both settings and performances benefit from the fact that the beauty of the original songs are allowed to shine through. A highlight of the current disc is performance of For All the Saints and improvisation. This is, in part, one of the tracks previously released – in this case as part of the disc titled Earth’s Wide Bounds. I have not heard that CD at all but I loved the hymn as performed here. In fact it is a rather clever conflation of two quite different sessions. First, the Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea give an uplifting performance of the hymn – descant and all – set to one of Vaughan Williams’ best known melodies Sine Nomine. John Francis had the novel idea of asking David Briggs to improvise on that tune as if he were playing for a church service recessional and the combination of hymn and improvisation is new to this disc. As Francis neatly puts it; “this compound track thus captures a liturgical practice not often found on commercial recordings”. Apart from the sheer quality of the performance – technically too the way the organ of St. Jude “expands” into the mighty instrument of Truro Cathedral gives it a real emotional lift – this touches quite a nerve for someone of an age where daily hymns were part of the school routine and such recessionals are also deeply familiar and uplifting.

Briggs’ Truro sessions also produced two further performances new to disc. These are his own arrangements of the Serenade to Music and the more light-hearted March Past of the Kitchen Utensils from The Wasps Incidental music. The former is the longest single item on the disc. As ever, Briggs’ playing and the sympathy of his arranging is excellent. The question remains – as it did with his version of the Symphony No.5 that was the centrepiece of the earlier release – how effectively the music transcribes onto a large organ in an expansive and resonant acoustic. With the symphony, some doubts did remain, but the essentially lyrical and reflective nature of the Serenade suits the location. Even though the composer did offer an instrumental version of this work, I find the absence of the voices and the words significantly lessens its emotional impact. That said, Briggs’ performance is a model of musicality and sensitivity – there is a certain homogenising of the sound spectrum so that the ecstatic solo violin writing of the original does rather blend into the collective harmonic warmth of the piece and the cathedral setting as a whole. The March Past is suitably quirky and humorous and a useful addition to the concert organist’s repertoire.

Another work that was released on an earlier album is the student Suite for Four hands on One Pianoforte. This was produced as part of Vaughan Williams’ studies with Hubert Parry. The original score is marked with corrections and emendations which led the composer to write an alternative version of the second movement Minuet. On this new disc the original Minuet is offered alongside the identical performances of the suite’s remaining three movements. Parry was himself interested in writing neo-baroque suites so no surprise that he should set students similar exercises. I would challenge any innocent ear listener to identify this as the work of Vaughan Williams. As such the interest lies in the path that was as yet untrod as well as the powerful enduring influence of Bach. The performance by Lynn Arnold and Charles Matthews is again exemplary but this is an apprentice work and can only be heard as such.

Matthews swaps the piano stool for the organist’s bench for three further arrangements. The organ here is again relatively small – it is located in the Temple Speech Room of Rugby School - but it is a fine sounding instrument and its scale is well suited to these modest transcriptions. For an agnostic Vaughan Williams was strongly drawn to hymn tunes and Welsh ones in particular. He used Aberystwyth as the basis for a modest set of variations that formed the third and final movement of his Household Music. The unfussy arrangement here is by Herbert Byard who became friendly with the composer and his wife in the immediate post-war period. Byard also arranged the better-known The Call which is the fourth of the Five Mystical Songs. In the organ-alone version I can imagine this being a useful interlude in a sacred setting but as music the absence of the words and the fuller/more common instrumental version diminishes the work although Mathews’ playing again is perfectly unfussy and serene. The third organ transcription if of an early piano Pezzo Ostinato dating from 1905 where it was one of three pieces collectively published in 1994 as Birthday Gifts. Curiously none of these three pieces were included in Mark Bebbington’s “complete piano works” release on Somm released back in 2017. This is another very minor chip from the master’s block but the distance travelled since the Parry-guided Suite is already evident.

The disc is completed by two further gems from William Vann and the Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea. The first is the setting for male voices only of the folktune Dives and Lazarus dating from 1941. Vaughan Williams had used this beautiful melody as the basis of his great Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus just two years earlier. The performance here – duplicated from Albion’s A Vaughan Williams Christmas collection - is just perfect. The disc closes with another of the composer’s great hymn tunes. The words of God be with you till we meet again originated as a Moody and Sankey song written for Gospel meetings in 1880’s Washington. Vaughan Williams edited the text and wrote a new tune which he called “Randolph”. This was the name he gave his cousin and close friend Ralph Wedgewood – a photograph of Wedgewood, along with another of Gustav Holst, was at Vaughan Williams’ bedside at his death in 1958. That context allied to another poised and quite lovely performance of this great setting makes this a suitably touching, indeed moving, conclusion not just to this disc but Albion’s important contribution to the composer’s anniversary year.

As mentioned earlier, the quality of the Albion presentation is a significant part of the pleasure to be found in these discs. The booklet is crammed with photographs, all texts when required (in English only) and additionally appreciative biographies of all the performers, technical team and producers involved across all the sessions from which this disc has been compiled. I enjoyed reading these a lot as it acknowledges just how much work and effort goes into all such projects. Although this is a disc more aimed at the Vaughan Williams enthusiast rather than the general collector, this is a fitting and uplifting conclusion to a year of discovery and celebration.

Nick Barnard

Flourish for Three Trumpets1 (1951)
Serenade to Music20 (1938/40) transcribed for organ by David Briggs (b. 1962)
Three Folk Songs3,4
Four Cambridge Flourishes for Four Trumpets1
For All the Saints and Improvisation2,3,5,6
March Past of the Kitchen Utensils2 (The Wasps) transcribed for organ by David Briggs (b. 1962)
Suite for Four hands on One Pianoforte7,8 (1893)
Variations on Aberystwyth8 (1940) transcribed for organ by Herbert Byard (1912-1977)
Pezzo Ostinato8 (1905) arranged for organ by Len Rhodes
The Call (Five Mystical Songs) 8 arranged for organ by Herbert Byard (1912-1977)
Two Carols from Herefordshire1,9 (1928) arranged for Brass Band by Paul Hindmarsh
Dives and Lazarus3,5 (1941)
God be with you till we meet again (Randolph) 3,5,6 (1906)
The Tredegar Town Band1, David Briggs2 (organ), William Vann3 (conductor, piano), Mary Bevan4 (soprano), Nicky4 (tenor), Roderick Williams4 (baritone), Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea5, Joshua Ryan6 (organ), Lynn Arnold7 (piano), Charles Matthews8 (piano, organ), Ian Porthouse9 (conductor), Eloise Irving10 (soprano), Angus McPhee11 (bass)
rec. 16-18 February 2018 St. Jude on the Hill Hampstead London (Dives), 7-11 June 2020 Henry Wood Hall London (Folksongs), 7-9 January 2021 West Road Concert Hall Cambridge (Suite), 21 March Temple Speech Room Rugby School (Variations, Pezzo, Call), 17 June 2021 St. Jude on the Hill Hampstead London (Saints, God), 11-13 August 2021Truro Cathedral (Serenade, March Past, Improvisation), 4-5 December 2021 Brangwyn Hall Swansea (Flourishes, 2 Carols)