Vaughan Williams: The Garden of Proserpine

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COMPOSERS: Hadley,Vaughan Williams
LABELS: Albion Records
WORKS: Vaughan Williams: The Garden of Proserpine; In the Fen Country; Hadley: Fen and Flood: A Cantata
PERFORMER: Mary Bevan (soprano), Jane Irwin (mezzo-soprano), Leigh Melrose (baritone); Joyful Company of Singers; Bournemouth SO/Paul Daniel

The word ‘decadent’ doesn’t normally spring to mind in connection with Ralph Vaughan Williams. Yet here is the young composer, setting poetry by one of the most notorious artistic voluptuaries of the Victorian era, Algernon Charles Swinburne, just four years after the trial of Oscar Wilde. So should we rethink our image of the younger VW? On the evidence of The Garden of Proserpine, perhaps not. Accomplished though the score is, it’s the closing meditation on mortality, rather than Swinburne’s hedonistic lyricism, that draws the best from the composer. And even this is some way short of the sombre eloquence of Toward the Unknown Region, begun four years later.
In the Fen Country is still essentially ‘early’ Vaughan Williams, yet the touch is far surer, the imagination more sharply focused. Still it’s Patrick Hadley’s Fen and Flood, composed in response to the devastating East Coast deluge of 1953, that leaves the strongest impression. The style ranges from homely, but not derivative folksiness via more quirky imaginative touches to moments of moving grandeur – not least the final hymn. Performances are authoritative, atmospheric, and not at all self-conscious when dealing with rollicking monks or comedy Dutchmen. The sound is a little colourless, but clear and present enough. Stephen Johnson