Vaughan Williams: 49th Parallel; The Dim Little Island; The England of Elizabeth

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COMPOSERS: Vaughan Williams
LABELS: Chandos
ALBUM TITLE: Film Music, Vol. 2
WORKS: 49th Parallel; The Dim Little Island; The England of Elizabeth
PERFORMER: Emily Gray (soprano), Martin Hindmarsh (tenor); Chetham’s Chamber Choir, BBC Philharmonic/Rumon Gamba
One forgets how much film was used for propaganda and informative purposes in the years before today’s mass communication. Three such enterprises to which Vaughan Williams contributed scores are conveniently combined here. Most substantial is a 40-minute suite for 49th Parallel, a wartime tale of Nazis finding safe haven from Canada in the then neutral USA, produced as a tool to persuade the Americans to enter the war. Then there’s a little eight-minute piece designed to refute the much-touted idea that Britain was culturally ‘a dim little island’ in the late Forties, and finally a tourism-inducing vehicle extolling the country’s Tudor heritage, courtesy of the British Transport Commission. Musically, there’s some vintage RVW here, especially much of the score for 49th Parallel, which was written alongside the Fifth Symphony. The Elizabethan portrait, too – far from being cod-Tudor wallpaper music – makes much use of tuned percussion à la the contemporaneous Eighth Symphony. The Dim Little Island, meanwhile, is based around the music of one of Vaughan Williams’s finest concert scores, his Variants on ‘Dives and Lazarus’. Although the strings almost stumble once or twice, there’s plenty to admire in the BBC Philharmonic’s typically full-blooded playing, and Rumon Gamba has the knack of conjuring real atmosphere from the notes on the page. Matthew Rye