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CLASSICAL  February 2007

CLASSICAL February 2007

Subject:

Vaughan Williams Hits

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

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

Date:

Mon, 29 Jan 2007 09:57:41 -0600

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Ralph Vaughan Williams
  Chorus & Orchestra

*  Serenade to Music*
*  5 Mystical Songs^
*  Fantasia on Christmas Carols^
*  Flos Campi**

Sixteen soloists*
Thomas Allen, baritone^
Nobuko Imai, viola
Corydon Singers
English Chamber Orchestra/Matthew Best
Hyperion CDA66420 Total time: 68:17

Summary for the Busy Executive: Visionary music in earth-bound
performances.

[Before I begin, I'd like to thank British choral enthusiast and singer
Virginia Knight for her generous and thoughtful gift to me, in the
aftermath of the destruction of my music collection in hurricane Katrina.]

I can't tell you the last time I encountered a Vaughan Williams work
on a concert program, as opposed to a church service.  Even then, it
was likely to be the hymn "Sine Nomine" or "Forest Green," rather than
even something as simple as the anthem "Oh, how amiable." The number of
new books on his life and work - that is, since his death in 1958 - I'd
describe as "modest," at best.  However, Vaughan Williams's music lives,
and lives well, in recording, which means that a large band of listeners
exists and programmers should take note.

Let's face it.  Tastemakers suspect the accessible and often conflate
it with the easy and unearned.  They'd rather write about technical
innovations in Britten's Curlew River than about the poetry and craft
of his Ceremony of Carols.  Vaughan Williams's "hard" music - in many
instances, puzzling in its time - has lost much of its difficulty.  The
question remains whether it has therefore become crummy music.  After
all, we can ask the same of Beethoven.  What continues to strike me about
Vaughan Williams's hits are the risks he takes in each.  Nevertheless,
for me their beauty allows us to approach and even love them.

Oddness touches every item on the program here.  In the Serenade to
Music, the composer has written for sixteen solo voices and has given
each a solo characteristic of that singer's style.  Nevertheless, the
piece doesn't fly off in sixteen different directions.  The early Fantasia
on Christmas Carols avoids well-known carols.  Indeed, one of the them
- "On Christmas Night" - achieved whatever popularity it has due to
Vaughan Williams's arrangements of it.  Other carols, like "The First
Nowell" and "There is a fountain" (which I'm sure you all know) burrow
in the orchestral texture but never receive a full statement.  The work
lives up to its title "Fantasia," in that one thing follows another, and
yet, again, everything sounds of a piece.  This should be mess of a work,
but psychologically, at any rate, it all hangs together.  The 5 Mystical
Songs (the composer made two versions out of the same score: one with
chorus, one without) sets the Metaphysical poet George Herbert, at the
time the province mainly of 17th-century specialists and connoisseurs.
Finally, one looks at Flos Campi pretty much the same way one looks at
a platypus.  What is it?  you may well ask.  A suite? A choral cantata
with solo viola?  A viola concerto with chorus? Add to this its polytonal,
metrically free opening, its lush sound (from few forces), and its mood
swings from barbarism to benediction, and you have at least a curiosity.
Why have these works generated enough interest to have them recorded
again and again?

I admit my view of Vaughan Williams runs counter to some very high-powered
critics, but, when I consider some of their judgments, I have to conclude
they haven't listened very hard.  At any rate, I'd cite three reasons.
First, Vaughan Williams is one of the greatest melodists who ever lived.
The bon mot that his "best-sellers are not [his] own" - a joke VW
appreciated - becomes insignificant in the light of all his great original
tunes.  Furthermore, he is simply one of the great setters of English
poetry.  Almost every poem he has set becomes his and no other composer's.
His harmony is both unpredictable and inevitable.  He doesn't merely
come up with progressions nobody else thought of (although that's not
nothing), but he takes the bones of Western harmony and puts them in
surprising new contexts.  I'd cite in particular the modulation in the
Fantasia on Christmas Carols to "God bless the ruler of this house" -
absolutely garden-variety, but in context miraculously fresh.  Third,
like Bartok, his counterpoint and sense of structure are both masterful
and absolutely idiosyncratic.  Add to this a unique and wide-ranging
orchestral palette, something he gets very little credit for, and I think
you get a great composer, as far as I understand great.

Furthermore, Vaughan Williams has two other skills that raises him above
most.  First, he can create the dramatic, memorable gesture and, what's
more, could do so from his student days.  In many cases, the music creates
a near-physical response in the listener.  In the opening to the "Sea
Symphony," for example, at the words "Behold, the sea itself!" one "sees"
a curtain raised to reveal the massive ocean.  In the 5 Mystical Songs,
the heart (or the mind) lifts at the words "Rise, heart!" Second, he
makes what I can only call magic in score after score.  I'd cite the
opening descending chords in the Tallis Fantasia, the Serenade's
transformation at "How many things by season season'd are," the opening
to Flos Campi, even that modulation in the Christmas Fantasia, cited
above.  Again, most of these things are not his discoveries.  The Tallis
chords, for example, come straight out of Debussy and Ravel (with whom
VW studied).  But they don't sound like anybody really unleashed them
before.  Somehow, the context the composer has built, in this case solely
through dynamic and orchestration, turns them into the music from under
the hill.  Many have written that this is nothing more than "manner,"
but if that were so, then it should be easy to imitate.  Nobody else,
even his most ardent disciples, sounds like Vaughan Williams or has that
same wizardry.

The Serenade to Music, if you can believe it, began as an occasional
piece.  The composer wrote it in 1938 for the conductor Henry Wood's
Jubilee.  Wood wanted something that would allow him to honor sixteen
singers who had worked with him.  So part of the composer's challenge
came with the commission.  The music, however, turned out too good to
abandon to the occasion, so Vaughan Williams, ever practical, made two
other versions: one purely orchestral, the other for SATB choir with
four soloists.  The orchestral version has even been recorded, but I
can't call it a success. It really needs the words.  The SATB version
gets performed, at least in amateur venues, and Sargent recorded it in,
I believe, the Fifties.  That LP introduced me to the piece.  This version
doesn't fail outright, but the original version (which I first heard
from that non-eminent Vaughanian Leonard Bernstein) came as a revelation.
The work transformed from secular cantata to mini-opera.  It's by far
my favorite setting of Shakespeare's words.  Speaking of which, it's not
even an obviously lyrical bit of Shakespeare, like "Under the Greenwood
Tree" or something so well known as Romeo and Juliet's balcony bits, but
large chunks of the Belmont scene from Merchant of Venice.  Just the
sound of its opening evokes perfectly a summer night, with a sense of
the "vault of heaven" and breezes slipping through the orchestra.  Indeed,
it seems to me a perfect piece, not necessarily technically, but in the
amount of psychological satisfaction it delivers.

How much you need this disc depends on what you already have.  For my
money, nothing beats the EMI series with Boult, Willcocks, and, latterly,
Hickox.  Matthew Best has the advantage of superb engineering (the sound
of this CD is gorgeous) and a first-class chorus in the Corydon Singers.
His soloists, with few exceptions, let him down.  Since I haven't the
score, I can't tell which soloist does what in the Serenade.  My favorites
were two of the sopranos.  Thomas Allen disappoints me in the Herbert
songs.  His voice has acquired - as a conductor acquaintance of mine put
it - "a beard," a rough edge that makes him sound as if he struggles
through the middle register particularly.  Also, little scoops mar his
attacks.  He sounds bogged down.  I'm not a particular admirer of EMI's
John Shirley-Quirk, but compared to Allen, he soars.  Violist Nobuko
Imai fights to find the interpretive groove in Flos Campi.  She has
plenty of company on that one.  This score is notoriously difficult to
bring off.  Not only does the violist have much to shape (with little
help from the composer, incidentally), but so does the conductor.  Finding
the right tempi (and the music speeds and slows like crazy) can drive
musicians nuts.  Aronowitz does well for Willcocks on EMI, but Hickox
and Philip Dukes currently stand at the front of the line of all those
I've heard.  My major gap - ie, I haven't heard this - is Paul Silverthorne
and Paul Daniel on Naxos.  For the Christmas fantasia, I recommend either
Barry Rose and John Barrow on EMI, Hickox and Stephen Varcoe (also on
EMI), or Willcocks and Hervey Alan on London/Decca.  It's a shame. The
English Chamber Orchestra plays with great sensitivity, with superbly
shaped solo lines.  However, the star soloists weigh down what could
have been extraordinary performances to the level of acceptable.

In all, I'd recommend the EMI boxed set of Vaughan Williams's major works
(catalogue number 73924), all conducted by Boult.  It runs around fifty
bucks, American.  You get the complete symphonies plus fugitive pieces
like the Serenade in what remain benchmark performances.  You can find
better performances individually, but eight CDs at that price and at
that quality strike me as a bargain.

Steve Schwartz

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