Ralph Vaughan Williams Discoveries BBC Symphony Orchestra; Brabbins; Williams; Johnston ALBCD028
This disc is aptly entitled Discoveries, for not many bars of the opening track have elapsed before one asks oneself why one has not come across this glorious music before. In fact, the opening song is one of three Nocturnes, of which only one (the second) has been previously available. Numbers I and III only existed in manuscript short score, and have here been orchestrated by Anthony Payne. They are sung magnificently by the peerless Roderick Williams, and are full of those senses of awe, wonder and revelation in which Vaughan Williams so excels: utterly ravishing. Although these three Nocturnes are, for me, undoubtedly the highlight of the disc, there is other good stuff here too. A Road Paved With Stars is a Symphonic Rhapsody from that most tuneful of operas, The Poisoned Kiss. It has been compiled by Adrian Williams and is immensely enjoyable to listen to, although (by its very nature, of course) it is rather meandering and lacking in formal structure. It is followed by “An Italian Rhapsody for Orchestra”: Stricken Peninsula is a reconstruction of the score from the Second World War documentary film of the same name, by the composer and film music expert Philip Lane. The disc is completed by another Anthony Payne orchestration, this time of the Four Last Songs, in which Vaughan Williams set words by his wife, Ursula. I found Menelaus particularly striking, a song in which mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston’s dramatic and operatic voice worked particularly well, redolent in tone —as is the song— of that great opera, Riders to the Sea. Performances from the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins are as excellent as one would expect and hope for.
Purer than Pearl: Songs and Duets for Voices, Piano and Violin Mary Bevan, Jennifer Johnston, Nicky Spence, Johnny Herford, William Vann, Thomas Gould ALBCD029
This disc presents songs and duets by Vaughan Williams in chronological order, from his student days through to the middle part of his career. This is extremely interesting from the point of view of being able to trace the development of a recognisably Vaughan Williams sound. The earlier songs are more operatic, and also more redolent of nineteenth-century art song than one might expect. The disc opens with the highly dramatic Summum Bonum, with some very emphatic piano playing from William Vann. Other songs presented here include Three Rumplestiltskin Songs –which are almost Warlockian in rumbustiousness— and a number of songs for voices, piano and violin. The latter are extremely effective, the violin working beautifully as an extra voice and blending gorgeously with the singers. The only work on the disc that I found a disappointment was the choral version of Linden Lea, set by Sumner Salter in 1929 for soprano, alto, tenor, bass, and piano. The performance here (one to a part) is far too affected and overblown. The song isn’t allowed to speak for itself: the singers dominate, rather than the music and words, and as a result the work loses all its nostalgia, poignancy, and power. The disc concludes with eight songs from The Poisoned Kiss, arranged here by Adrian Williams – an enjoyable (if rather lazy!) way to hear a number of the best bits from a lovely opera. The disc is well- and clearly-presented, with excellent notes, albeit rather too informal on occasion.
Ralph Vaughan Williams Music for Two Pianos Goldstone and Clew ALBCD 031
This disc presents arrangements of the Fifth Symphony, The Running Set and Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, performed by Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow. The Fifth Symphony arrangement, which opens the disc, was made by Michael Mullinar, a student and friend of Vaughan Williams’, and was overseen and edited by Vaughan Williams, making it a collaborative effort. Goldstone and Clemmow play very sensitively -- there is a real magic to the opening of the third movement, although the performers are slightly let down by the tuning of their instruments, which isn’t fabulous. The arrangement of The Running Set by Holst’s colleagues and friends Vally Lasker and Helen Bidder is great fun. This work lends itself far better to piano arrangement than the Symphony or, indeed, the following Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. I found that my scepticism regarding a two-piano version of the latter was justified: the piano is just too percussive an instrument to capture the shimmering string sound of this gorgeous piece. Of course, the benefit of arrangements of this nature is that they enable the listener to hear more clearly things that might be missed in the thicker orchestral texture, but I have to confess that, personally, I cannot imagine reaching for a piano reduction when full orchestral versions are available to listen to. Nevertheless, these are undoubtedly fine performances of these works.
Sing Willow: Shakespeare Songs Les Sirenes Female Chamber Choir ALBCD030
Only four works on this disc are by Vaughan Williams, and these open the recording: Over Hill, Over Dale, The Cloud-Capp’d Towers, The Willow Song, and Dirge for Fidele. These are complemented by other Shakespeare settings from composers including James MacMillan, Kenneth Leighton and John Rutter, with one song cycle (Five Shakespeare Songs) by David Willcocks and another (Hark, Hark the Lark) compiled by Bob Chilcott from his own songs and those of other contemporary composers. I really wanted to like this disc, but sadly found it not as much to my liking as other Albion discs: the music failed to grab me —the Willcocks in particular sounded very much like school songs written for children— and I was put off by the style of the performances. Les Sirenes is a choir comprised of students and graduates, and although their sound is extraordinarily mature for what must be a group of young people, I found their extreme use of vibrato painfully excessive, to the extent that the music came across as very warbly indeed. Their ensemble is not always superb (in their singing of the phrase “cloud capp’d towers,” for instance), and so many voices make the works sound very clogged. Add in the extremely reverberant church acoustic, and the result is a mush of sound.
The Film Music of William Alwyn, Volume 4 BBC Philharmonic, Rumon Gamba CHAN10930 HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
This, the fourth volume of Alwyn’s film music, mostly contains suites arranged and reconstructed by Philip Lane, and very fine they are too. From the Orientalism of the suite from The Black Tent through the infectiously enjoyable dances of the music from On Approval to the darkness of the score for Shake Hands with the Devil, they are all enjoyable and attractive. Other film scores featured include The Master of Ballantrae, Fortune is a Woman, Miranda, Saturday Island, The Ship That Died of Shame and the documentary A City Speaks. Recommended for film music lovers.
Joseph Holbrooke Violin Concerto 'The Grasshopper,' The Raven, Auld Lang Syne Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt; Howard Griffiths; Judith Ingolfsson cpo 777 636-2
This excellent disc features some top quality playing from the Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt under Howard Griffiths, in three important orchestral works by Joseph Holbrooke. It opens with Auld Lang Syne, a set of variations on the song for full orchestra. Much as I love Holbrooke’s music, I must confess that twenty-three minutes of Auld Lang Syne (even with such inventive variations —some recognisable, some playful and fun, and others almost deconstructions) got a bit too much for me, and I found myself longing for the Violin Concerto to commence. The sound that Ingolfsson makes in The Grasshopper Concerto is bright and immediate, very clean and pleasant. I was also impressed by the warmth from both violin and orchestra in the second movement, where Ingolfsson’s vibrato is particularly noticeable. She employs a fair amount of this, but I personally thought that it works very well indeed — overall I much enjoyed her playing. The slightly strange third movement is, to my mind, the one which most needs the orchestral accompaniment that it receives here (as opposed to just piano, as in the Sonata). The Raven is another slightly odd work, in that it takes quite a time to get going, but when it does, it is really worth the wait. It is given a fine performance here from the Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt. A very fine disc with excellent performances.
My First Classical Albums 8.509003
This collection of nine discs for very young children aims to introduce them to classical music. Although the set is well-designed for children (the notes are written in an encouraging, easy and child-friendly style, just about managing to avoid being patronising, but a little dumbed-down for my taste) there is a disappointing lack of English music here, with absolutely none at all on the first album (shock, horror!) nor on the piano or ballet discs. Elgar features only twice in the set, with Salut d’Amour on the violin music disc and Chanson de Nuit on the lullaby collection, which also, perhaps rather oddly, contains two comparatively obscure selections: Bax’s Lullaby and Dowland’s Come Heavy Sleep. Vaughan Williams has a look-in on “My first Orchestra Album” with Greensleeves, but that, alas, is it. Artists are only mentioned in the small print at the back of the booklet. On the whole, tester Tristan (aged two-and-a-half) enjoyed listening to these discs, but not as much as he enjoys listening to whole symphonies, concertos, operas or oratorios, which rather makes one wonder whether such reaching down to children is really necessary.
Vaughan Williams Film Music Classics RTE Concert Orchestra, Andrew Penny 8.573658
This disc presents music by Vaughan Williams from four different films, starting with the Prelude to The 49th Parallel, moving on to the two suites from The Story of a Flemish Farm and Coastal Command, and finishing with Three Portraits from The England of Elizabeth. Andrew Penny conducts the RTE Concert Orchestra in a 1993 recording from Dublin’s National Concert Hall. The music is as enjoyable and colourful as any who know and love the films will expect, and the performances are top-rate, with energy, vibrancy, and sensitivity.
English Visionaries: Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, Herbert Howells Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir, Paul Spicer, Nicholas Morris SOMM CD 0159
An extremely attractive programme is presented here in the form of works by Vaughan Williams, Holst and Howells, with an emphasis on the more revelatory and progressive pieces —mostly, but not exclusively, sacred— by these three composers. It opens with Vaughan Williams’s harrowing A Vision of Aeroplanes. The performance here from the Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir, directed by Paul Spicer, is a very good one, full of youthful energy, enthusiasm and expression. It is followed by Prayer to the Father of Heavens and the glorious Mass in G Minor. The choir here produce a very clear sound, albeit slightly on the hard side. The sopranos are also a little lispy (this is especially noticeable in the Sanctus – Osana I), but it is otherwise a fine performance. The singers are likewise atmospheric in the following Holst pieces The Evening Watch and Sing Me the Men. Howells is represented next, with The House of the Mind, and the disc concludes with Vaughan Williams’s Lord, Thou Hast Been Our Refuge. This is a really lovely performance, making for a splendid finish. Overall, an impressive and enjoyable release.--Em Marshall-Luck