COMPOSERS: Vaughan Williams
ALBUM TITLE: The Collector’s Edition
WORKS: The Collector’s Edition
PERFORMER: Ian Partridge, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Vernon Handley, Adrian Boult, Richard Hickox, David Willcocks etc
CATALOGUE NO: 206 6362
In this anniversary year no company has as much right as EMI to commemorate Vaughan Williams, nor such awesome means to do so. This isn’t the complete works, but here’s a huge helping of major creations, many of them first recordings, that adds up to a convincing and deeply moving showcase. Such is the strength of EMI’s back catalogue that they could have made it up quite differently – sometimes one feels they should have – but these performances, if not always the very best, are never less than serviceable and idiomatic, and often much, much more. The Symphonies Most controversial, probably, will be the choice of Handley’s symphony cycle. If Handley’s approach could be summed up, it’s spacious, broad and laid-back, sometimes downright slow, as in A Sea Symphony. It doesn’t always compare favourably with EMI’s other legendary cycles – Boult, with the composer’s imprimatur, or the most modern, Haitink. Boult, perhaps, was thought almost too familiar, offering solid readings, occasionally a little too solid, that bring out the strength and sinew in the music without losing its mystical side. Handley can be stronger on mysticism, in the often ethereal, elegiac manner of the Pastoral and the grimly enigmatic Ninth, although he brings memorable strength and intensity to the deeply shadowed Sixth. The fresh digital sound of his recordings is often a help, although the Liverpool venue can sound rather hard at times. His London Symphony is less dramatic than some, but splendidly sweeping nonetheless. In the flaming opening of the Fourth, though, he’s less peppery and abrasive than Boult, and less tautly propulsive than Haitink. And that Sea Symphony, with its somewhat recessed and medium-powered soloists, doesn’t compare with Haitink’s knockout, better sung and recorded. The Dutch conductor also brings out the stature and modern character of the Sinfonia Antarctica much better than either Handley or Boult. Haitink’s cycle displays both a naturally idiomatic sympathy and a cosmopolitan insight that frees the composer of the (former) modernists’ ‘cowpat school’ sneers and rightly places him in the line of European masters. Handley, by contrast, could hardly feel more English, to the point of occasionally bogging down. Understandably, perhaps, only his Fifth is a natural front-runner, a rich, almost hypnotic performance radiating the special sense of peace and beauty that struck its first listeners in wartime – including its dedicatee Sibelius. This is not to be missed; and though newcomers may find his cycle less immediately exciting than its rivals, it remains an honourable contender and well worth having.
Other Orchestral Works
Beyond the symphonies, though, follows an almost dizzying assortment of other performances, almost all his works of any stature. Handley’s mellow Wasps suite; Boult’s Job, Norfolk Rhapsody, Lark Ascending, Dona Nobis Pacem; Willcocks’ Santa Civitas – all the masterpieces, too many to list and all fine performances. Many have been overtaken by more recent recordings – many of these from Richard Hickox, also well represented here – but none wholly outclassed. They range from the Romance for Harmonica, Tuba Concerto and Song of Thanksgiving to the chamber music, hymns, carols, songs and even the best operas, Riders to the Sea to Hugh the Drover, Sir John in Love and The Pilgrim’s Progress. Of the opera-based cantatas we get In Windsor Forest, but not A Cotswold Romance.
Vocal and Opera
The song selection is especially rich with alternative versions – Thomas Allen’s Songs of Travel and Rolfe Johnson’s with piano, Ian Partridge’s On Wenlock Edge, Robert Tear’s with orchestra – and folksongs choral and otherwise, with classic soloists from Janet Baker to Thomas Hampson and, less conventionally, countertenor David Daniels and the King’s Singers. Indeed, there are too many good things to single out, reducing the unfortunate critic to carping about what’s less good – though that’s rarely very serious. Sir Charles Grove’s Hugh, for example, is not ideal, a somewhat twee performance with Tear’s genteel hero; but it will do until a better one comes along (not Hyperion’s, similarly afflicted!). John Shirley-Quirk’s ardent Five Mystical Songs should surely have been chosen instead of Stephen Roberts’; and The Call for treble and organ quietly stifled. One wonders whether three versions of the Serenade to Music were necessary; the choral version is less luminously textured and the orchestral rather a bodge, and Boult’s original is handicapped by less than stellar soloists, tenors especially. Silvestri’s Tallis Fantasia is good, but Karajan’s extraordinary version would have made a much-needed point about VW’s universality.
Some of the choral singing is less well focused than we would expect today, and less well recorded, with the dreaded cathedral hoot in evidence – again, very English, and some people may actually prefer it. It drains the sensuality out of Flos Campi, though, and makes Five Tudor Portraits too polite, without the earthy bawdiness VW intended and enjoyed. Whether you prefer the Bach Choir and Westminster choristers in Fantasia on Christmas Carols to the more full-blooded LSO Chorus, though, you can decide here; there’s both.
A breathtaking achievement
Summing up this huge set is about as easy as summing up the composer, except in one equally applicable comment – exceptional value. As a portrait of him it lacks a few essentials – the original version of the London Symphony, for example, and his Henry V music to which Walton’s owes so much – but its scope is still breathtaking. One recognises his mannerisms more clearly, perhaps, and hearing one work on top of another the modal themes can seem a bit overpowering – but then only critics ever listen that way! What does build up is a powerful sense of identity and achievement, as distinctive as Sibelius or Mahler (whom he disliked) and as passionate; the image of VW as placid provincial is dispelled by something much richer and more rewarding. There’s an accompanying taster CD called The Essential Vaughan Williams, but it’s misnamed. This is the essential set, and if you’re at all drawn to VW you might as well buy the whole damn show now – because sooner or later you’re going to anyway… Michael Scott Rohan