Notes and Editorial Reviews
Laurels of the nineties granted freshly irresistible life.
This is one of a small treasury of major Vaughan Williams tributes from the record companies in 2008 - the year that sees half a century since the composer’s death. Those tributes include the reissue at bargain price of discs that have had a long tenure in the catalogue. We have seen only the merest trickle of recording premieres. Chandos have been heroes in this respect with the film music handsomely done as well as The First Nowell and The Poisoned Kiss. How much longer before we see first recordings of the Folk Songs of the Four Seasons, the tone poem The Solent, the complete sequence of all three Norfolk Rhapsodies and a realisation of the unfinished Cello Concerto?
In one sense this set is really up against it. Competition from the EMI Classics' Collectors Edition is formidable. After all EMI is offering for the price of about four full price discs 30 CDs containing a very large part of RVW's output: all the symphonies, concertos and orchestral pieces, most of the operas, the folksongs, many of the major choral works and the chamber music. Best not to regard that EMI set as competition - there is some overlap but best view it as complementary to this one. After all many of the hymns on the Hyperion plus the Bunyan Sequence and The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains are unique to this set.
Even where there is overlap there are distinctive features with Hyperion and these have a real pull.
The Hyperion is ideally documented with each disc in its own case and each having a booklet with every single sung word printed. Contrast the EMI set with its wallet-style economy, stiff card envelopes and lack of texts. The first CD – here CDS44321 - launched what became the Hyperion-Matthew Best RVW project. That disc, in one sense, played safe, concentrating on a new excellence in familiar works. This Best and his players and singers achieved.
The first Hyperion disc offers a Serenade to Music taken by a team of then young and debutante singers - a team for the nineteen-nineties as Boult's early 1970s team was a team of the late 1960s and 1970s. The Hyperion has the edge over the analogue EMI in transparency of the solo voices. This Serenade to Music is memorable for many reasons including Maciej Rakowski’s tremulously sweet violin. I have recently had cause to praise Thomas Allen for his way with the Coates songs on Dutton. He is no less spine-tingling in these wonderful Mystical Songs and he achieves this against the competition of John Shirley-Quirk from the 1970s. That notable ecstasy is attained and sustained in this version - Rise Heart indeed! There is a good-hearted triumph that rings through this fine recording; it is not to be missed. The Christmas Carol Fantasia also benefits from Tomas Allen's golden presence.
Finally on that first disc comes a voluptuous and close-quarters Flos Campi in which Nobuko Imai's throaty viola has much the same quickening that I hear in Maciej Rakowski's violin in the Serenade. Did any other composer use vocalising voices so often, over the whole of a career and for such diverse purposes, I wonder?
With the exception of the last disc in this set every other CD can be bought separately at full price. That last discs (here phoenixed under CDS44324) has been deleted. It starts with A Song of Thanksgiving which RVW was asked to write in anticipation of victory in the second world war. It was to be premiered within days of VE Day. The speaker here is none other than John Gielgud - Hyperion were always well connected. He also took the role of Christian and Faithful in the Bunyan sequence recorded for the first time ever on CDS 44323. Thanksgiving has the burning crusading quality of those days yet one looks for the anger in vain. This is perhaps an unrealistic expectation of a work written with celebration as its goal. This reminds us again of RVW's range of inventive resource. The use of orator, the use of vocalising choir, the embracing of radio as a medium, the lifelong absorption in Bunyan – all are reflected in this cross-section of works.
The devotional Three Choral Hymns continue the theme of celebration and do so very effectively as does the Hundredth Psalm. The second of the three hymns recalls the Plainchant origins of the unaccompanied Mass.
The Hymns and A Song of Thanksgiving prompt other thoughts. The composer was an avowed atheist yet wrote music that was a channel for praise. Their effect seems no less sincere for all that. A Song of Thanksgiving is a work for the moment even if its redolence remains powerful to this day. One might bracket it with other works of wartime celebration which we might feel less comfortable with - for example there are Soviet works of victorious celebration yet they seem consigned to oblivion. The doors should be opened to this genre for we may have discoveries to make beyond the shores of the British Isles.
The lambent Magnificat is given a new suffusion of light in this warmly radiant performance and recording. It combines, mystery, stained glass and motes of dust caught in shafts of light amid darkness. It is a most magical work and in this performance must be heard.
The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains is an operatic scena - a key and blessed episode in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. In Tolkien terms it represents a Rivendell or Lothlorien episode in the journey. The performance is well night perfect although I did wonder about how relentlessly close the recording was. This is often characteristic of the balance selected across all four discs - all four hours and 41 minutes. Of undiluted distinction is the role of Bryn Terfel as Pilgrim in freshest of voice. His contribution is full of every nuance of character and word colour achieved before celebrity and stardom had turned heads and talent.
There is a remarkable echo of the Sixth Symphony in the calming core of the 100th Psalm which also links with Sheep May Safely Graze (3:20 forwards).
Thomas Allen, returns this time Judith Howarth, for Dona Nobis Pacem. The choir distinguish themselves with smouldering intensity and an Old Testament savagery arising naturally from the Whitman words. RVW was not above learning from Arthur Bliss's City Arming movement in Morning Heroes. It's a remarkably frank echo of the Bliss. The wild tumult is not allowed to blur the definition of the words - a good balance of fury and precision. I still retain my affection for alternative versions from William Metcalf for Maurice Abravanel (Vanguard) and John Carol Case for Boult (EMI Classics) but this is a most beautifully imagined and sung version. Its core is to be heard in Reconciliation and Dirge for Two Veterans (the latter also wonderfully done by Holst with minimal forces). In RVW's case we get a sturdy, grim yet yielding and totally unorthodox death march interspersed with episodes such as the “immense and silent moon” with its milky white light illuminating the double grave. The great drums are marvellously rendered without flinch. This is an extremely fine performance. Vaughan Williams' invocation to peace and warning against war may not have changed worlds. The second world war was driven by hotter fires of hatred and ambition than any piece of music could hold back. However the music still speaks as a channel for temperate relationships between peoples. Its sincere goal is towards peace. It spoke in that way through the Cold War and continues in our own uncertain times.
The Four Hymns are recorded for the first time in their string orchestra apparel. The schema and mood-style suggests a similar ambition as the Five Mystical Songs. Again the composer juxtaposes voice and solo viola - however rather than Flos Campi where the vocal element is wordless, the ‘choir’ here is solo voice and viola. Later still in his neglected Housman cycle solo voice was to be joined by solo violin in Along the Field to contrast with the large chamber ensemble for On Wenlock Edge. The Four Hymns will appeal to anyone who is captivated by the Mystical Songs but it has to be admitted that the level of inspiration is not as exalted.
It is not the first time that Dona Nobis Pacem and Toward the Unknown Region have been harnessed on the same disc. Many among the older readers will remember Boult's LP recording of Dona where the ‘disc-mate’ was Toward the Unknown Region. This version shows great attention to the detail of the words. Rather like the Magnificat and the Mystical Songs Best bids fair to be the finest in the catalogue. The work here has a fascinating almost Straussian voluptuousness which I do not recall hearing before. It made me think of another work I would not normally have considered had any parallels and that is Delius's A Mass of Life. I must say I found this work rather matte and dull in other recordings; not so here.
After Whitman's mysticism comes more magical and joyous candour. Try the sound of trumpets and tambourines for O Clap Your Hands - a no-holds-barred performance. Lastly another rarity in Lord Thou Hast Been Our Refuge, here sung by Thomas Allen - a very welcome fixture in this set – with the Corydon Singers and Orchestra.
Aside from writing the notes for all four discs Christopher palmer created The Bunyan Sequence out of the music RVW wrote for a 1942 BBC radio production. He did similar service for the Walton films (Chandos) and indeed for Prokofiev's film scores. In the 1940s Apollyon would surely have been seen as an analogue for the men strutting in dark uniforms around Berlin. It is a powerful score with parts very familiar from The Pilgrim's Progress (1951).
Pasco is the very model of restraint and clear-headed speech. He takes the role of Evangelist and also of a miscellany of other characters. His approach can be compared with the stagey Gielgud. Once one can get over Gielgud's ‘luvviness’ there is much here to delight. Also there is a pleasure in recognition of music that takes a sometimes very different curvature from that described the 1951 Morality ‘in the similitude of a dream’ now to be heard on EMI (in that big set) and Chandos. The Gate opens with music which has the flaming tongues redolent of the Four Riders music in Schmidt's Book of the Seven Seals and more directly in RVW's own Fourth Symphony. There is some careful distancing in this particular recording: notable are the distant trumpet calls in The Way (tr. 4).
Then we come to the encounter with Apollyon - the foul fiend. Here the music is familiar for it was used with similar effect in the Morality; RVW did not want it called an ‘opera’. It isplayed here with furious abandon and once again with virtuoso precision. Pasco takes on the role of Apollyon – and balefully intoning “Here will I spill thy soul” the menace is almost tangible in the hoarse and rough-cutting edge he imparts to his voice.
Vanity Fair is more rompingly turbulent than seductive but Vaughan Williams soon achieves that quality with string quartet and harp in the most diaphanous of colours and sounds. That said, the music also has a serene quality which does not differentiate from earthly bliss as much as he might have wanted. With music like this how did Pilgrim resist. We might be forgiven at this point for wondering whether Pilgrim was a dull dog even if his judgement was unerring. The music has that sensuous yield we hear in Flos Campi - where the voluptuous and the devotional blend delightfully. For The Trial and the music for Lord Hategood we hear fast mechanical music that sounds uncannily like Shostakovich in spitting vituperation.
I do wish some enterprising person would issue the 1942 recording of the radio adaptation. While they are at it, if it survives, why not also the broadcast of The Mayor of Casterbridge in the late 1950s which included RVW’s incidental music.
Across these four discs there is so much in the way of nexus and interconnection. One major aspect is the presence on CDS44324 of The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains. This can be contrasted with The Delectable Mountains episode in the Bunyan Sequence.
I had initially wondered if the set was nothing more than the individual issues swept off the warehouse shelving into this new card slip-case. Not a bit of it. Each booklet and insert, while following the original issue, is newly numbered and printed. Each bears a CDS (not CDA) number on the spine and they are sequentially numbered: CDS44321-443234.
The notes for this series are in English only. They are distinguished efforts too - for all four discs - being amongst the last writing assignments completed by Christopher Palmer.
This is as impressive and noteworthy a set as one could ask. It cuts a juicy swathe through the RVW catalogue of vocal works. In doing so it mixes the great with enjoyable ephemera and the Bunyan-centred with the godly and grand.
Short of waiting on e-bay this is now the only way of getting this modern version of A Song of Thanksgiving. Generally the set is invaluable for its distinguished and enthusiastic performances and for its all-round excellence and its refreshing mix of the familiar and catalogue rarities. This is achieved despite the mix of orchestras: two discs deploy the Corydon, one each for the City of London Sinfonia and the ECO. It is also secured across some thirsty individual solo artists - mostly singers. Hyperion have a good ear for these things as their Schubert lieder cycle amply testifies.
Hyperion's laurels of the nineties granted freshly irresistible life in the now not so new millennium.
-- Rob Barnett, MusicWeb International