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CLASSICAL  February 2007

CLASSICAL February 2007

Subject:

VW Chamber-Music Rarities

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 12 Feb 2007 08:11:27 -0600

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	Ralph Vaughan Williams
	The Early Chamber Music

*  Piano Quintet in c
*  Nocturne and Scherzo
*  Suite de Ballet
*  Romance and Pastorale
*  Romance: Andantino
*  String Quartet in c
*  Quintet in D for clarinet, horn, violin, cello & piano
*  Scherzo for String Quintet
*  3 Preludes on Welsh Hymn Tunes (Household Music)

The Nash Ensemble
Hyperion CDA67381/2 Total time: 62:09 + 72:16

Summary for the Busy Executive: The boy's got it!

Vaughan Williams composed very little mature instrumental chamber music
of any heft: two numbered string quartets, a violin sonata, a string
quintet, and a curious work for just about any combination of instruments.
On the other hand, he wrote more than twice that number in the years
before his study with Ravel.  However, Vaughan Williams suppressed almost
all of his work during this period.  The output that survived begins at
around 1905 (Toward the Unknown Region, eg).  Up to now, I had read about
pieces I thought I'd never hear.

I like best about CDs, perhaps, the opportunity they occasionally
afford to tell you something about a well-known composer you didn't know.
Certainly, that's the case here.  Apparently, VW didn't get the chance
to destroy everything and left some early manuscripts lying about, which
his widow donated to, I believe, the British Museum.  The Nash Ensemble
(which has also recorded the Phantasy Quintet and the Violin Sonata, as
well as the major vocal chamber music) has given us a rare treat.  I
don't claim that every one of these items is a masterpiece, but they are
almost all interesting, with some quite lovely.  You find yourself
wondering whether the composer drove himself too hard.  In any case, the
set's title is inappropriate.  None of this falls into the category of
student work.  Indeed, the composer wrote the earliest of the works here
at roughly the age of 25.  Furthermore, he composed some of the pieces
well after 1908 (Household Music comes from World War II), the year from
which most scholars date his artistic maturity.

Before that point, VW's problems come down to two, one external and one
internal.  Externally - that is, in the scores themselves - one can see
a certain structural clunkiness, a tendency to stop and start again.  He
has trouble with transitions from one bit to the next.  Even in his
maturity, he remarked to a student that finding the tunes was never the
problem (!); going from one to the other was the real work of composition.
On the other hand, in the earliest of the works presented here, one hears
what I can only call the "real" composer trying to get out.  Some passages
sound characteristic; others don't.  This I'd call an internal problem.
Obviously, Vaughan Williams didn't particularly want to sound like his
teachers, and it took him years of effort - conscious effort - to find
"his" voice.  One reads letters to his friend Gustav Holst (collected
in Heirs and Rebels) about his concerns to say something "characteristic."

We hear both of these problems in the 1898 string quartet in c. 
It typifies a young man's work.  It gravitates to emotional extremes
and wants to be taken very seriously indeed.  One also notes a whirl
of influences, some not normally associated with Vaughan Williams -
Saint-Sa=EBns and Tchaikovsky among them - as well as the usual suspects
of Parry and Brahms.  Saint-Sa=EBns appears in the modesty of the scoring,
Tchaikovsky in the virtuosity of the string writing that recalls the
Serenade in C.  (Incidentally, VW wrote an essay comparing the merits
of Brahms and Tchaikovsky, used symbolically as the greatest present-day
examples of particular musical tendencies.  I think the essay gave best
two-out-of-three to Brahms).  But we also hear something else: a big
nature struggling to get out.  This happens from the very opening, a
modal whirl that shows quite clearly that the composer even at this point
had something on his teachers Parry and Stanford.  Still, the fondness
for the mode doesn't relate yet to English folksong, but to the music
of Dvorak.  The movement parades one episode after another, rather than
develop an argument, unlike his first numbered string quartet of just
ten years later.  The slow movement keeps knocking at the door of the
composer's mature melodic vein without opening it.  However, you do hear
a characteristic, meditative atmosphere.  Nevertheless, the distance
between this and something like the opening cello solo of the Christmas
fantasia makes you appreciate how much the composer slogged through his
personal "noise." The scherzo structurally coheres the best, but it's
also the shortest movement.  The finale, a theme and variations movement
capped by a fugue, succeeds least. It sputters in fits and starts.  Some
variations don't seem to belong together.  Again, the composer has work
to do.

On the other hand, the quintet for clarinet, horn, violin, cello, and
piano - from the same year - demonstrates complete structural assurance
within the Brahms-Dvorak idiom.  Even better, it's a work worthy of both
of them.  It consists of four movements: a vigorous opening, a Brahmsian
intermezzo rather than a scherzo, a noble slow movement, and a dance-like
finale.  The ideas are so good and their treatment so masterful, your
jaw drops.  It resembles, though it surpasses, John Ireland's lovely
sextet for similar forces.  Dvorak himself would have been proud to own
this work.  One foreshadowing of the later Vaughan Williams is his
penchant for the Magic Modulation, the kind of harmonic ambiguity that
raises a kind of shimmer or even a slight frisson in the sound.  From
the get-go, you feel the composer's inspiration at the highest level.
The only falling-off - only when you compare it to the other movements
- occurs at the finale, where you feel some passages as the composer's
"settling." Still, however good the work in its own right, it represents
something artistically safe in light of the composer's development.  The
string quartet comes across as something radically experimental.  It
risks more and presses more forcefully although it doesn't achieve
anything near the quality of the quintet.

The piano quintet of just five years later shows a great advance. 
The Brahmsian influence is melding with the composer's experimental
idiom.  We begin to hear the Vaughan Williams of Toward the Unknown
Region and On Wenlock Edge.  Now he has really surpassed his teachers.
The three-movement work consists of a dramatic allegro, a slow movement,
and, again, a variations finale. The very opening measures grab you and
sweep you up into something Really Big.  The Brahms component still
appears, but less overtly.  One might say that Brahms "haunts" the work,
as Beethoven haunted Brahms.  Furthermore, the allegro ("con fuoco")
moves as one large piece.  The composer has absorbed the larger lesson
of Brahms without mimicking him.  One finds none of the "stopping and
restarting" that bedeviled the string quartet.  The slow movement, labeled
"Andantino," marks the earliest instance I know of Vaughan Williams's
ability to suspend time.  The theme adumbrates the song "Silent Noon,"
which comes from the following year, but mood of that classic stands out
here: rapt, expectant, alive, waiting for revelation.  The finale,
"Fantasia (quasi variazioni)," uses a theme that the composer recycled
for his violin sonata of 1954.  The seamlessness of the variations
impresses me.  The string quartet finale - also a variation set - kept
each variation distinct.  In the piano quintet, the variations merge to
form a powerful symphonic argument over an imposing ten minutes.

In 1904, VW wrote a Ballade and Scherzo for string quintet.  Two years
later, he revised the ballade and wrote an entirely new scherzo to create
the Nocturne and Scherzo.  The Nash Ensemble gives us the 1904 Scherzo
as well as the complete revised work.  If the Nocturne indicates something,
the original scherzo was the superior movement, a vigorous piece moving
in and out of fugue.  One can guess at the composer's dissatisfactions
with it, however, since it never really gels.  It seems like two different
works jammed together.  I suspect VW tried to learn from Elgar's example
here, but he doesn't bring it off.  Elgar had the gift of alchemy, turning
scraps of paper into powerful discourse.  VW had to slog through a little
more conventionally.  Still, one meets with interesting stretches along
the way, and the counterpoint delights.  The Nocturne strikes me as the
weakest piece on the whole disc, reminiscent of some of the plumier
sections of the Rossetti song cycle House of Life, filled with an
oleaginous chromaticism from the School of Cesar Franck.  Things brighten
considerably in the new Scherzo, which weaves in the folksong "As I
walked out" into a glittering texture, foreshadowing the scherzo of the
London Symphony.  Even before VW's Ravel studies, this shows him a
composer with a strong, sure instinct for new sounds.

The Suite de Ballet of 1913, for flute and piano, shows the composer's
skill as a miniaturist.  In four movements, the entire suite lasts maybe
six minutes.  The ideas hit immediately.  They curiously blend a forward
and backward view of VW's work.  The opening "Improvisation" recalls
something like the earlier In the Fen Country as well as foreshadows the
bitonal opening to Flos Campi (it flirts with bitonality without quite
committing to it), while the "Gavotte" looks back to the march from The
Wasps Suite and ahead to Old King Cole and, again, Flos Campi.  By now,
however, Vaughan Williams has thrown over the traces of Brahms, Parry,
and Stanford.  This little suite takes off from French Impressionism,
particularly in its sense of harmonic instability and ambiguity.  At any
rate, the work - like the similarly-scaled Six Studies in English Folk
Song - thoroughly delights, even if it doesn't leap tall buildings in a
single bound.

The Romance and Pastorale violin and piano comes from 1914, the
year VW went to war (at 42!).  He wrote it for Dorothy Longman, a
very close friend.  At her death, he composed the choral masterpiece,
Valiant-for-Truth.  His feelings must have run very deep.  This little
chamber work plumbs great depths, particularly the Pastorale, in a small
frame. It touches you, gives you the thrilling shiver of an unlooked-for
kind word.

The Romance for viola and piano, from the same year, shows a maturing
sensibility.  The viola, VW's own instrument, figures prominently in the
composer's output, but not necessarily as a center-stage solo.  The only
concerted work the composer wrote for it was the late and very odd Suite.
However, most of the symphonies contain at least one stand-out passage
for the instrument, and in the a-minor string quartet, the viola leads
off each movement.  This little Romance shows a composer capable of great
things, even in a short span.  It begins coolly and builds to a passionate
climax. It gives the lie to those who think of Vaughan Williams as fey
or "pastel." This literal throwaway puts out enough amps to fry chicken.

Household Music (or, to give its more formal title, 3 Preludes on Welsh
Hymn Tunes) springs from the composer's full maturity.  Reading the
papers and watching newsreels of Londoners taking shelter from the Blitz
in the tube stops, the composer concluded it would be nice if they could
make some music to while away the time.  The piece is a curious blend
of idealism and practicality.  On the one hand, the composer assumes
that people are fleeing with their instruments.  On the other, as long
as you've got instruments in certain ranges, you can play the piece.  A
string quartet performs here.  The one other performance I've heard was
with string orchestra with horn (Hickox on Chandos CHAN9392).  I wish
the producers had gone with a diverse collection of instruments, what
you might expect from a group of players who happened to turn up.  The
piece lies within amateur capabilities, without the composer writing
down.  He has given the instrumentalists some very interesting music
indeed.  It comes from the sound-world of the Fifth Symphony, and, indeed,
none of the movements would have been out-of-place in a symphony.  The
composer himself orchestrated the piece for medium orchestra.  The
movements riff on well-known hymns: "Crug-y-bar" (Fantasia); "St.  Denio"
(Scherzo); "Aberystwyth" (Variations).  In the first movement, the tune
pokes through from the middle of the texture without ever fully revealing
itself.  In the second, much the same happens, but the tune does break
through in the end.  In the finale, the composer states the tune, tears
it apart, and puts the pieces in new combinations and elaborations.
Furthermore, Vaughan Williams doesn't necessarily give you the usual
liturgical character of the hymns.  "St.  Denio," for example, sheds its
earthy sturdiness, sprouts wings, and takes off.  "Aberystwyth" abjures
its penitential origins and becomes a benediction.  All in all, a terrific
piece that deserves a bigger fan base.

The Nash Ensemble plays with sensitivity, beauty, and taste.  It may
well have replaced the old Melos Ensemble as my favorite British chamber
consort.  They may lack a certain sumptuousness of tone, but they more
than make up for it in vigor and clarity.  They have at least two more
Hyperion CDs devoted to Vaughan Williams's chamber music (instrumental
and vocal), both of high quality.  This, I think, is the best of the
three, and it's beautifully recorded besides.

Steve Schwartz

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