Vaughan Williams – Piano Concerto

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COMPOSERS: Vaughan Williams
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: The Wasps Suite; Piano Concerto in C; English Folk Song Suite (orch. Gordon Jacob)
PERFORMER: Ashley Wass (piano); Royal Liverpool PO/James Judd
CATALOGUE NO: 8.572304

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The keyboard toccata and the fugue might seem unsuitable genres for Vaughan Williams’s innately broad and expansive manner. Yet here they both are, contributing to the total picture that makes the Piano Concerto of 1926-30 a remarkable work.

The booklet cover photograph – a pastoral scene (what else?), menaced with dark clouds – is a neat image of the exploratory, turbulent, sometimes insistently bitonal idiom that Vaughan William’s music began to explore in the 1920s (from Sancta Civitas towards Job).

The Concerto’s opening Toccata sounds Bartókian, surely as a consequence of the folk-influenced idiom shared by each composer being directed towards percussive keyboard figuration. Then comes a lyrical, wonderfully sustained Romanza slow movement; and an incisive Fugue leads to  a Finale whose quiet, expansive ending is a magnificent statement.

Ashley Wass’s commanding way with the solo part is beautifully poised in the Romanza, while admirably resisting any temptation to smooth over the Toccata’s hard edges. Both in the Concerto and in the more familiar territory elsewhere, James Judd secures orchestral accompaniments of brilliant colour and focus.

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Characterisation could be sharper: the composer’s roguish streak is underplayed in ‘The March Past of the Kitchen Utensils’ from The Wasps. But in the English Folk Song Suite and The Running Set, the musical dancers are scintillatingly light on their feet. The recorded sound, too, finds an ideal balance between capturing precise detail and the broader spaces around it. Malcolm Hayes