There is no doubt that Vaughan Williams is Britain's finest composer in the
tonal tradition. His nine symphonies are all different and fascinating in
their own special way. Symphonies 4, 5 and 6 are masterpieces and Chandos'
recordings under Bryden Thomson are not only the finest performances, being
accurate to the composers intentions, but I cannot see how they can ever
be equalled let alone surpassed.
Vaughan Williams Overture: The Wasps is a deservedly popular piece
and is here given a good performance although the tempo is slightly too slow
for my taste. There a couple of uncomfortable moments but the sound, particularly
that of the high strings and harp is exquisite. Both Sir Adrian Boult and
Bryden Thomson's respective versions are superior in their rhythmic drive
and overall sound but this version with the LPO under Vernon Handley is quite
acceptable even though it lacks the thrust of his two rivals mentioned above.
Vaughan Williams composed some of the most beautiful music ever written.
The Serenade to Music is one such example. Here we have the orchestral
version with LPO and Handley and, while I prefer the version with sixteen
singers this performance is simply marvellous with a very appealing valedictory
feel about it. Perhaps the tempo is a little on the slow side occasionally,
particularly at the passage which begins with the eight-note trumpet motif
... but it is a glorious sound. One does not usually speak of Vaughan Williams'
as a great orchestrator, but he was.
A wonderful example of Englishness is the Fantasia on Greensleeves,
particularly when Englishness is not promoted today. The Welsh, Scots and
Northern Irish maintain their nationality, and rightly so, but the English
do not. The BBC Philharmonic give a loving and warm account under Vernon
Handley again. Another example of Englishness is the song Linden Lea,
here arranged by Arthur Somerville for choir and performed by the Huddersfield
Choral Society under Brian Kay who takes it rather quickly. It needs a broader
canvas and I hate the choral accompaniment to the last melody note of the
final verse which cheapens it. It is far better for a solo singer.
Tommy Reilly enjoys himself in the Romance for harmonica and strings
ably supported by the Academy of St. Martins in the Fields and Neville Marriner.
It is a curious piece and the recorded sound is a little harsh.
Maurice Johnstone is the orchestrator
of the Three Songs from the House of Life
sung by Stephen Varcoe with the City of London
Sinfonia under Richard Hickox. As with Linden
Lea they fare better in their original
form. Varcoe has a splendid voice and is an
inspired choice for these sumptuous songs.
Again the Englishness of Gurney, Quilter and
Eric Coates come to mind. The song, Silent
Noon is so perfectly sung that it could
move you to tears. Flos Campi for viola,
chorus and orchestra is a work I loved deeply
until I heard Sir David Willcock's recording
of it. Not only did he have boy sopranos and
male altos but an aggravating fussiness that
two distinguished composers Ruth Gipps and
Gerard Victory described as 'naff' and 'grossly
ill-conceived'! Here, Frederick Riddle, the
Bournemouth Sinfonietta and choir under Norman
Del Mar restored my love for the this piece
and over-turned the unjust death sentence
that Willcocks gave it.
This score is a strikingly original piece. Good as this performance is, I
feel that the chorus is sometimes a little too far back but there is so much
to comment it. The alla marcia's choral entry is stunning. It is
marvellous human work. It has a passion that will evoke a warm cathartic
response from all true music lovers. Riddle, Bournemouth and Del Mar give
a thoughtful account of the Suite for viola and orchestra, a pleasant
but often simply-constructed work. The first section, or group one as it
is called, is of three pieces, a prelude, a charming carol
and Christmas Dance which is rugged for its title. Group 2 begins
with a ballad which is an attractive piece and this followed by a
moto perpetuo in which the violist displays his skill.
Group 3 begins with a musette noted for some interesting accompaniment
and ends with a gallop which shows Vaughan Williams's admiration of
Bartók. Here the Englishness gives was to Eastern Europe. A very curious
polka comes between. There is a rather hybrid work. I am not sure
that all eight pieces 'belong' together.
Sea Songs could be a misleading title as it is a quick march but as it is
based on three naval songs. I suppose the title makes sense ... eventually.
Originally written for military band the Bournemouth Sinfonietta under George
Hurst play it here with verve. The same forces give us The Running Set
a short vigorous work, sometimes corny, based on traditional dance tunes.
They also perform Two Hymn-tune preludes, the two tunes being
Eventide (Abide with me) and Dominus Regit Me (The King of
Love My Shepherd is). My experience is that music lovers do not warm to this
type of music and ask inane questions such as "Why don't we hear all the
tune?" and "Why has he changed it?"
George Hurst does the best he can with the Overture: The Poisoned Kiss
but overture it is not, but rather a suite. It has a good start but becomes
ordinary and seems to end up at a circus rehearsal.
I have saved the best until last. The superb clarinettist Janet Hilton,
accompanied by Keith Swallow perform the Six Studies in English Folksong
and quite brilliantly. What a sensual velvet tone and what sparkling clarity
Janet gives us and what lovely English music it is.
The recordings are reissues of performances originating from between 1975
- 1989 and are generally good.