Vaughan Williams enthusiasts owe an increasing debt of gratitude to Stephen Hogger of Chandos Records. The man who was instrumental in the realisation on CD of the superb original version of the London Symphony is now responsible for two volumes of film music. With several further scores to be explored it is to be hoped that this latest volume will not be the last.
The chief interest in volume one was in the first complete recording of the incidental music from Scott of the Antarctic. This included a good deal of music that did not subsequently find its way into the Sinfonia Antarctica. The other substantial score on volume one, Coastal Command, had already been recorded on a Marco Polo disc along with the concert suite Muir Mathieson assembled from VW's score for the 1955 British Transport Commission documentary film, The England of Elizabeth. Going back further than this many will no doubt be familiar with André Previn's recording of the Elizabeth suite, originally coupled on vinyl with the Ninth Symphony on RCA Victor Red Seal (when the Ninth Symphony was subsequently re-released on CD the coupling changed to the Sixth Symphony). This first recording of the complete score, extending to nearly twenty-five minutes worth of music, is therefore most welcome. Of greatest interest however is the premiere recording of the complete incidental music from the 49th Parallel. Nearly forty minutes of music, most of which is unknown to non-film buffs, with the exception of the noble and often heard Prelude.
At the age of sixty-eight, the 49th Parallel was VW's first foray into film music. Encouraged by Muir Mathieson, the director of music for the Ministry of Information, he took to writing for the screen with both enthusiasm and skill, a demonstration of the alert and enquiring mind he retained until his death. Shot partly in Canada the film boasted a cast of stars including Leslie Howard, Laurence Olivier and Glynis Johns. It told the story of the crew of a stranded U-boat who attempt to cross Canada in the hope of crossing the 49th Parallel into the then neutral United States. As the director stated, the aim of the film was as much to do with propaganda as anything else, the intention being to "scare the pants of the Americans and bring them into the war sooner". Much of the music is concerned with the characters the Germans meet during their journey including a French-Canadian trapper, native Indians, a Canadian soldier who challenges the German commander and an immigrant group of German Hutterites. Following the initial Prelude is a Prologue of eleven glorious minutes. Providing an introduction to a number of the incidental themes used later, the music will be an unadulterated joy to lovers of Vaughan Williams. It passes through pastoral depictions of the Canadian scenery and rugged passages of exhilarating, blazing brass captured thrillingly by the BBC Philharmonic and the Chandos engineers. Try from around 4:08 for quintessential VW where a chromatically rolling motif leads into a wonderful brass apotheosis. As Michael Kennedy points out in his useful booklet notes the music is all the more fascinating for the occasional hints of the Fifth Symphony, which the composer was working on at around the same time. Inevitably, the music becomes somewhat more fragmented as the score progresses yet there are still sections of notable if fleeting substance. A 'Control Room Alert' in "galumphing" scherzo mode, echoes of the Lento from the London Symphony heralding the 'Death of Kühnecke', a joyously rollicking celebration of the Hutterite 'Wheat Harvest' and perhaps the most memorable of all the later sections, a 'Nazi March' darkly underpinned with appropriately sinister hues. Out of sequence with the running order of the film and preceding the reprise of the Prelude that forms the closing titles is a brief section entitled 'Nazis on the Run' and 'The Lake in the Mountains', the latter having been published as a rare VW piano solo of the same name in 1947.
The England of Elizabeth dates to the last three years of VW's life, yet anyone familiar with the Mathieson suite will know that the remarkable vitality of the melodic inspiration is as strong as at any point during the composer's career. At the time of its composition Vaughan Williams was in the throes of completing the Eighth Symphony whilst the Ninth Symphony was evidently already on his mind. Although divided into five clear movements these can be broken down into numerous sections to which Vaughan Williams gave titles charting the course of the film. As Stephen Hogger correctly points out however, the music is best listened to as a complete entity. Much of the material of the substantial first movement is well known from the Mathieson suite: the fanfare-like trumpet melody that introduces sections that pass through a street scene, the Elizabethan countryside, a portrait of Elizabeth herself, Hatfield, Tintern and Kings College, Cambridge. There is a good deal that is memorable including the variant of the main trumpet theme, atmospherically transformed at 6:45 to be followed by a choral evocation of Kings College. Echoes of the Eighth Symphony permeate the opening of the second movement, which has a folk-like dance heard on solo violin at its centre. The gloriously beautiful opening of the third movement depicting Stratford-upon-Avon also charts a number of other local Warwickshire sights including the river Avon itself and Charlecote Deer Park. There are also several passages that are less familiar; they do not feature in the Mathieson suite. The final movement opens with the familiar melody from the Sea Symphony that was soon to be further used as the flügel horn solo in the second movement of the Ninth Symphony. The final episode returns to the very opening with a reprise of the trumpet call-to-arms.
Of less interest than its partners on the grounds of familiarity is the score for the ten-minute public information film, The Dim Little Island. Heard here in its entirety, the music is immediately recognisable as a reworking of the Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus with the addition of a brief prelude. To this is added a solo vocal rendition of the melody, here sung by tenor Martin Hindmarsh. Rumon Gamba's reading refreshingly eschews over-sentimentality whilst still allowing beautifully sonorous sounds from the strings of the BBC Phil. Indeed, the orchestra are in fine form throughout the recording aided by customarily vivid sound from the Chandos engineers.
The fact that many of VW's film scores reflect, to a degree, the particular symphony or other major work he was occupied with at the time in no way detracts from the quality or inspiration of the music. Indeed, it is fascinating to hear echoes of earlier symphonies in these scores alongside ideas formulating for the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies. Above all however, it is clear that the composer treated his work for film with no less attention than he would afford a piece on a larger scale. It is entirely deserving that his richly rewarding work in this medium is committed to disc.
Gary Dalkin adds:-
Until receiving Christopher's review, I was going to write a full appraisal of this album myself. But now having read Christopher's views any commentary from myself would be redundant, as I find myself agreeing with every word he writes. This is a very fine recording and an invaluable addition to both any serious film music collection and the music library of anyone who cares deeply about English classical music.