All concerned with this ambitious and enterprising CD are to be congratulated especially on including the first recording of Vaughan Williams’ Introduction and Fugue for two pianos. Mark Bebbington informs that this substantial work was dedicated to Phyllis Sellick and Cyril Smith (the husband and wife piano duo). They acknowledged the dedication and played it a few times but felt they had to drop it because they found it difficult to programme – audiences preferred more approachable fare and so the work languished undiscovered in collections and libraries from the 1940s until recently. About eighteen months ago (as I write in February 2017) Phyllis Sellick gave Mark Bebbington her copy of the work complete with Vaughan Williams’ metronomeRead more suggestions and dynamic shadings. SOMM were supportive – so too was The Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust.
This is a masterly work and it is immediately apparent that it is a homage to Bach. The ornate, writing is richly and impressively elaborate. It is imposing and grandiloquent. The large-scale fugue is a wonder of contrapuntal art, harmonic fluidity and rich sinuous variety. Bebbington and Omordia’s deft and dedicated reading shows the work off in all its glory proving, if ever such proof was needed, that this work is a major find and a significant addition to the two-piano repertory.
The Fantasia on Greensleeves reduction is lushly romantic. The spirited two piano transcription of the Tallis Fantasia clearly could not emulate the emotional and spiritual essence and impact of the original string orchestra version, nevertheless it does possibly afford an opportunity to appreciate more clearly its construction - its individual contrapuntal lines, for instance. Some material is given new and significant timbres.
The music for solo piano section commences with another piece dedicated to Phyllis Sellick – The Lake in the Mountains, based on material from RVW’s score for the film The 49th Parallel. This evocative, haunting work brilliantly suggests a lake, in serene beauty, remote and isolated.
Another work worthy of rediscovery, it seems, is the relatively little-known Harriet Cohen Bach Book. In 1930 Oxford University Press invited ten British composers to each compose a solo piano piece based on a theme or work by J.S. Bach. The composers included: Bantock, Bax, Bliss, Bridge, Howells, Ireland, Lambert and Walton as well as Vaughan Williams. VW's contribution was the Choral and Choral Prelude on Bach’s ‘Ach, bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ’ (Lord Jesus Christ, with us abide). In this treatment, RVW adds a tenor part to Bach’s choral prelude and richness to the texture. There is, too, something of a nocturne added after the ‘evening cantata’ atmosphere of the Chorale.
Vaughan Williams had also written his Hymn Tune Prelude on Orlando Gibbons’ ‘Song 13’ for Harriet Cohen some two years previously. It has a calm unhurried supplicatory beauty, the song gently unfolding against the surrounding counterpoint.
A Little Song Book is a set of six miniatures as teaching exercises. They are little gems, especially the entrancing little Nocturne. More substantial is the Suite of Six Short Pieces which came to be known as the Charterhouse Suite when it was arranged for string orchestra by the composer and James Brown. The work's overall character looks back to early keyboard music. Its composition is sophisticated and complex. Particularly impressive is the lovely ‘Slow Dance’ and its swifter variation that immediately follows, while the Slow Air’s contemplative sedate beauty captivates the senses. The Rondo, more modern in style, is dreamily entrancing.
Scholarly and pianistically technical notes are contributed by Robert Matthew-Walker and should surely attract more pianists to this spellbinding music.
– MusicWeb International (Ian Lace)
Given the fluency of the piano writing here, it's a little hard to understand why Vaughan Williams wrote little piano music. There are two sets of short pieces that present snatches of the composer's melodic gift. There are adaptations of music by Bach, Tallis, and Gibbons. There are piano versions of other works by Vaughan Williams himself; The Lake in the Mountains is a top-drawer piece of pastoral Vaughan Williams taken from one of his underrated film scores from after World War II. But most impressive of all is a piece of entirely original music, and one that hardly resembles anything else Vaughan Williams wrote. The Introduction and Fugue for two pianos of 1946 is a massive contrapuntal essay. It is certainly inspired by Bach, but Bachian counterpoint is thoroughly reimagined in terms of Vaughan Williams' own modal harmonic thinking. Recorded here for the first time, it's a neglected masterwork, well worth your money and time.