Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) is certainly one of the foremost English composers of the twentieth century. Like many of his contemporaries – Bartók and Copeland come immediately to mind – he drew a great deal of his inspiration from folk songs and traditional melodies. In addition to his symphonies and choral works, he left behind a rich legacy of shorter orchestral works, many of which are remarkable, orchestral jewels.
Predictably, and to my mind unfortunately, this collection starts off with the Fantasia on Greensleeves, possibly one of the most overworked pieces of music in the history of Western civilization. Although ably rendered by Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, it’s an overdone work that seems to be inescapable. Marriner and the Academy, in fact, are responsible for the first disc, and provide the classic renditions of the English Folksong Suite, the Oboe Concerto (with Celia Nicklin as soloist), the Concerto Grosso, the Romance (for harmonica, strings and piano, with Tommy Reilly on harmonica) and The Lark Ascending (Iona Brown, violin). The second disc brings us Five Variants of “Dives and Lazarus” and the Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1, performed by The New Queen’s Hall Orchestra under the direction of Barry Wordsworth, the Partita (for double string orchestra), by Sir Adrian Boult leading the London Philharmonic, and then back to Wordsworth for In the Fen Country and Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.
I’ve already said all I’m going to say about Greensleeves. The English Folk Song Suite, originally scored for a military band, is delivered here in an orchestral arrangement by Gordon Jacob done in 1924, a year after Vaughan Williams assembled the Suite, utilizing traditional melodies arranged in a light, graceful tone. The Oboe Concerto is a felicitous marriage of material with the forces employed (solo oboe and strings) and points up once again Vaughan Williams’ absolute genius with strings. The Concerto Grosso was actually written to include participation by amateur and student musicians, reflecting the composer’s feeling that there should be room in public performance for musicians at all levels of achievement. The Romance shows Vaughan Williams’ ability to adapt to new instruments and their possibilities. Although previously unfamiliar with the harmonica, he incorporated it beautifully into a work that is lyrical and ambiguous. The Lark Ascending is possibly one of the most beautiful pieces of music Vaughan Williams wrote. For some reason, it is linked in my mind with A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad – perhaps it’s the very real feeling of an English village reflected in the music: the images are rural, sometimes sprightly, sometimes melancholy, and Iona Brown’s solo passages are simply haunting.
The Five Variants of “Dives and Lazarus” is a wonderful piece of music: enough formalism to be taken seriously, and enough range to be attention-getting. This is another work that displays the composer’s virtuosity with strings, full of dramatic contrasts and strong color. The Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 is a very early work. Originally composed in 1906 as the first of three Norfolk Rhapsodies (the other two were later withdrawn by the composer) and revised in 1922, it is based on folk songs collected by the composer in Norfolk. The Partita is actually the Double Trio of 1938 rewritten and given a new ending in 1948. In the Fen Country, another early work, was originally composed in 1904 and revised several times up to 1935. It demonstrates beautifully Vaughan Williams’ ability to create pictures from tones, painting a strong sense of the landscape. The Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis is one of Vaughan Williams’ more popular works, and Wordsworth follows the tradition of rendering it with a very “churchly” feel. While this is a powerful rendition, I would love to hear the Kronos Quartet get hold of this piece, because I think it would benefit from their tighter, drier approach. As it is, it’s still good, even superior, but Ah! What might have been!
The one work by Vaughan Williams I would love to have seen in this collection, and which is generally not as well-known as it should be, is Flos Campi. I know this one from an old LP by Maurice Abravanel and the Utah Symphony Orchestra, and it is terrific. It is odd that Decca, working with two conductors known for their interpretations of Vaughan Williams (indeed, Boult conducted the premieres of many Vaughan Williams works and recorded the complete symphonies) didn’t think to include a version on this set. Oh, well – as rich as these two discs are, I suppose I shouldn’t complain.
This is not “great music.” It is not always terribly profound, it is not necessarily cathartic, it does not engage the intellect to any great degree. It is lovely music, melodic, engaging, and refreshing, and it displays Vaughan Williams’ strong points as a composer. A word to the “sound” freaks, however – the latest recordings included are Wordsworth’s, from 1992; the earliest is Boult’s contribution, from 1956; Marriner’s renditions were recorded in the 1970s. All of these interpretations (with the exception of Wordsworth’s) were previously issued on Decca LPs, and no claim is made for their having been remastered. There are times when one could wish for more clarity in the sound (the Tallis Fantasia and Greensleeves especially suffer from this). They are, however, pretty much the classic interpretations, and the set is a bargain – a two CD set at a really low price. For those who love classical music and need a break from Beethoven and Mahler, it’s worth having.
(Decca Records, 1999)