Ralph Vaughan Williams
* Symphony No. 4 in f
* Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 in e
* Flos Campi
Paul Silverthorne, viola
Bournemouth Symphony Chorus & Orchestra/Paul Daniel
Naxos 8.557276 Total time: 62:34
Summary for the Busy Executive: Tremendous Fourth. Cool Flos.
Another entry in what may become a Naxos Vaughan Williams cycle,
featuring the conductor Paul Daniel. Daniel led a very good, if not
especially deep, account leading roughly the same forces in Vaughan
Williams's "Sea" Symphony (No. 1), with the chorus standing out.
Here, he betters my opinion of him as a champion of this composer.
In some ways, VW's Fourth Symphony is more graspable for conductors
than symphonies like, say, the Second, the Third, or the Ninth. For
one thing, among the composer's symphonies, it probably lies closest
to a standard symphony, at least in its large architectural details.
It also lies closest to the Modernist mainstream. Accordingly, you have
very good performances by conductors not normally associated with Vaughan
Williams's music - like Bernstein, for example. This may arise in part
from the work's genesis. The composer began to write the score after
reading a newspaper article on the modern symphony. Vaughan Williams's
symphonies, like Elgar's, have in them all an intractable personal,
idiosyncratic core, hard to crack. In my opinion, the Fourth has less
of it than the others.
Nevertheless, you can't call the symphony a pushover. Thematically,
it's the composer's most complex, built from a small kit of cells that,
like Lego blocks, combine and recombine into new themes and ideas. The
cells show up in every movement, establishing intricate interrelationships,
mainly through headily-difficult counterpoint. Furthermore, rhetorically,
the symphony, in four movements, comes to a full stop only at the very
end. The first movement ends in a major-minor ambiguity, and the second
on an unstable dissonance. The third doesn't really end but slams into
the fourth, while the fourth passes up many opportunities to end before
its last savage stamp. More than any other of Vaughan Williams's
symphonies, the Fourth is conceived as a structural whole.
I've thought of Daniel's "Sea" Symphony as clean and efficient, rather
than as deep or with strong affinities to the late Romanticism of Elgar
and Parry. Those qualities come even more to the foreground in his
account of the Fourth. However, they suit this symphony. Tempos tend
toward the quick side, without losing crispness, and the reading moves
breathlessly along. The account may lack some of the drama one gets in
other recordings, but for seeing the symphony as a whole, no reading
comes close to Daniels. For once, we don't get a "war-prophecy-symphony"
subtext, but the unfolding of practically pure symphonic discourse. The
score can certainly take it. I consider this an essential performance.
The Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1, the only one of the composer's Norfolk
Rhapsodies to have survived, comes from 1906. As with any VW piece I
haven't heard, I wonder why he buried the other rhapsodies. Some ideas
have occurred to me. The piece consists of an introduction, separate
elaborations of two folk-songs - "The Captain's Apprentice" and "The
Bold Young Sailor" - and a coda based on the introduction. The two most
remarkable sections are the intro and coda, where Vaughan Williams
demonstrates his gift for orchestral sonority. It's essentially his
take on French Impressionism (just before his studies with Ravel).
However, instead of a haze of notes from a lot of instruments, we get
roughly the same effect from two or three extremely well-chosen ones.
"The Captain's Apprentice," one of the most powerful of English folk-songs,
follows. However, the composer doesn't tap the power. It's a fairly
conventional treatment, given what the composer would do (and had already
done). Indeed, VW's earlier setting for piano and voice beats the more
elaborate orchestral version hollow. "The Bold Young Sailor" gets
somewhat perfunctory treatment. But VW produced the same sort of music
just three years later in the masterful overture to The Wasps. I would
guess that the approach he had taken in the rhapsodies failed to satisfy
him, and, indeed, I believe the composer revised the work after World
War I, along with the similar In the Fen Country. I will say, however,
that Daniels's recording easily surpasses any other I've heard.
The score of Flos Campi, based on sections from The Song of Songs, can
easily deceive you. It looks so simple on the page. Indeed, many of
the themes toe the line between simple and simple-minded, without ever
slipping over. Yet, apparently it's a bear to bring off. There are
many abrupt tempo changes, even within sections, and one finds the
interpretive groove with difficulty. Matthew Best and violist Nobuko
Imai have a devil of a time on Hyperion, for example. David Willcocks
and the great Cecil Aronowitz give a good baseline performance, but
(surprising for these artists) nothing really special. That's given to
us by Richard Hickox and Philip Dukes on Chandos and by Daniels and Paul
Silverthorne. The work has always struck me as compulsively strange,
its simple surface yielding something highly enigmatic and elusive. The
music runs from downright odd (the famous opening in two simultaneous
keys) to passionate to barbaric to ecstatic. To many, it's a choral
work, but the singers function purely as another orchestral section.
The composer features the viola (his own instrument) but has written
neither concerto nor suite. Damned if I know *what* it is, but when it
works, it surely churns up your insides. Daniel takes what I consider
a fresh look at the score, relating it more to the experimentalism of
the Twenties than to the usual English Pastoralism. Silverthorne, for
my money one of the great string players and a superb musician besides,
turns his part into a marvel. Every line is gorgeously carved and shaded,
every turn of mood caught. The final "Set me as a seal" section practically
brought me to tears, as I'm sure the composer meant it to. Hickox takes
a more traditional, though equally valid route, and Dukes I think equals
Silverthorne. Ideally, you want both performances. Strange that two
magnificent recordings of this work should have appeared so closely
Highly recommended, a must for the composer's fans.
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