COMPOSERS: Vaughan Williams
LABELS: Royal Northern College of Music
WORKS: The Pilgrim’s Progress
PERFORMER: Royal Northern College of Music Soloists, Chorus & Orchestra/ Igor Kennaway
CATALOGUE NO: PP1 DDD
Vaughan Williams’s Pilgrim’s Progress, premiered just after the Second World War, fell on the same stony ground as Britten’s Gloriana and Walton’s Troilus and Cressida. Part pageant, part fully fledged opera –
a sort of glowing after-echo of Parsifal – it deserved better.
It opens with Bunyan waking from his dream in prison, then sweeps his Christian hero through mocking ordeals (The Valley of Humiliation, lecherous Vanity Fair) en route to a shining Paradise. VW pilfers his own popular middle symphonies and reserves some of the best music – its flowing idiom owes a debt to Debussy’s Pelléas – for the gruesome bits, Highway fanfares and the numerous vignettes (Three Shining Ones, Mr and Mrs By-Ends, Shepherds old and young) which bring this allegory richly to life.
By any standards this is a remarkable achievement. Using entirely its own resources, the Royal Northern College of Music mounted the work to wide acclaim last year. Singing is of the highest order. It’s a ‘live’ recording, slightly doctored, so you need to be geared up for balletic chorus shuffles or the odd cacophonous devil. The orchestral playing, in all departments, is equally splendid. There’s a very fine Boult recording on EMI, so it has a strong rival. But having seen Joseph Ward’s resplendent RNCM production, I wouldn’t part with my copy for anything. (Copies of the disc are available from: Promotions Department, RNCM, 124 Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9RD.) Roderic Dunnett