Discoveries: Vaughan Williams’s A Road All Paved with Stars; Stricken Peninsula and Four Last Songs

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COMPOSERS: Vaughan Williams
LABELS: Albion
ALBUM TITLE: Vaughan Williams
WORKS: Purer than Pearl: Eight Songs from The Poisoned Kiss (arr. A Williams); Songs and Duets for voice, piano and violin
PERFORMER: Mary Bevan, Jennifer Johnston, Nicky Spence, Johnny Herford; Thomas Gould (violin), William Vann (piano)


How is it that we’re still discovering new things by Vaughan Williams nearly 60 years after his death? Inevitably these two discs offer a very mixed assortment, especially the collections of songs Purer than Pearl. Given that the first few songs on that disc were written when he was entering his twenties, it’s not surprising that the Vaughan Williams we know takes a little while to disentangle himself from the heavy trappings of Victorian drawing-room balladry. But then, suddenly, there he is in Linden Lea – and now we understand a little more clearly how he got there. The best surprises however are largely – aptly – in the disc called Discoveries, and especially in the Whitman-based Three Nocturnes, sung here radiantly by Roderick Williams. Anthony Payne’s gorgeous, idiosyncratic orchestrations of Nos 1 and 3 may emphasise resemblances to other, better-known works, but still the pre-echoes of the Pastoral Symphony are striking. Did Vaughan Williams have the association with the words ‘Smile O voluptuous cold-breathed earth!’ at the back of his mind when he (apparently) drew on this music in the Symphony’s first movement? The Four Last Songs, again Payne orchestrations, are on the face of it slighter than Strauss’s famous cycle. But they are still very touching, not least as a testimony – like the Strauss – to enduring love. (The poet is the composer’s wife, Ursula.)

Both discs contain imaginative digests, or perhaps ‘taster menus’, by composer Adrian Williams from the opera The Poisoned Kiss. For those who, like me, are agnostic about the opera itself, these are excellent ways to enjoy the undeniably fine music – in fact quite a lot of it sounds rather better extracted from its original context. Williams’s ‘Symphonic Rhapsody’ A Road All Paved With Stars (on Discoveries) makes the case for going back to opera slightly more enticingly than the collection Eight Songs from The Poisoned Kiss on Purer than Pearl, though Mary Bevan, Nicky Spence and pianist William Vann plead the cause for the last three numbers very persuasively. Performances and recordings are generally high quality, but the Williams-Brabbins Three Nocturnes is the stand-out for me – performance, music itself, everything.


Stephen Johnson