Wednesday, 4 January 2017

The unfamiliar & the familiar in a new guise: RVW Discoveries

Vaughan Williams Discoveries - Albion Records
RVW Three Nocturnes, Stricken Peninsula, A Road All Paved with Stars, A Road all Paved with Stars; Jennifer Johnston, Roderick Williams, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins; Albion Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 24 2016
Star rating: 4.0

The latest in the RVW Society's exploration of the composer's repertoire

This disc from Albion Records (the recording arm of the RVW Society) brings out one or two real RVW rarities and gives us more familiar music in unfamiliar guise. Hitherto unknown are the Walt Whitman settings Three Nocturnes for baritone and orchestra (two of them orchestrated by Anthony Payne), also hardly known is the score to the film Stricken Peninsula, here presented as Stricken Peninsula: An Italian Rhapsody for Orchestra reconstructed from the film by Philip Lane. A Road All Paved with Stars - A Symphonic Rhapsody is arranged from The Poisoned Kiss by Adrian Williams. The best known works are RVW's Four Last Songs, here performed in orchestrations by Anthony Payne. The performers baritone Roderick Williams, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conductor Martyn Brabbins.

RVW's Three Nocturnes date from 1908, and span the period when RVW went to study with Ravel. The second Nocturne (which seems to have been written first, before he went to Ravel) survived in full orchestration whilst the other two (which date from after the Ravel lessons) survived in short score which has been filled out by Anthony Payne. The first opens with hints of the Pastoral Symphony and is full of the lyric beauty of RVW at his prime, with the high baritone part sung beautifully by Roderick Williams. The second is darker and more atmospheric, with richly rewarding vocals woven into the texture of the score, the third seems to return to the world of the first. None of the Nocturnes is uncomplex, but the second seems to be the most structured whereas the other two rely on lyrical directness.


Adrian Williams' A Road All Paved with Stars creates an orchestral rhapsody out of RVW's lyrically romantic yet little known opera The Poisoned Kiss. It is full of mature RVW at his most attractively lyrical, stitched together by Adrian Williams' into a characterful tone poem. At 27 minutes, I have to confess that I found the work rather outstayed its welcome, particularly if you do not know the opera and how the various themes work within it.

Stricken Peninsula was a 15 minute propaganda film made in 1945, dealing with the privations being suffered by the population of Southern Italy. RVW's score has not survived and had to be reconstructed from the film, with Philip Lane creating a tone poem out of a series of short film cues. Despite the work's rather variegated genesis, the resulting piece is remarkably successful perhaps because of the intriguing mix of themes with which Lane had to work.

The highlight of the disc for me is Anthony Payne's orchestrations of RVW's Four Last Songs. Not intended as a cycle but instead two pairs of songs written in the 1950s to texts by Ursula Vaughan Williams intended perhaps as the beginnings of two different cycles. I was surprised at how well the orchestrations worked; this isn't to decry Anthony Payne's skill, but to show that the songs seem to have lent them selves to this new guise. The orchestra in Procris is nicely spare, it really does sound like RVW, and Jennifer Johnson is fabulous in the song's expressive melancholy. Tired is beautifully subtle with a lovely intertwining of voice and instruments. Hands, eyes and heart has a lovely unfolding vocal line, supported by the orchestra, and the final song Menelaus is a complex web of sounds with the Jennifer Johnson's vocal line expressively threading its way through. Throughout Johnson gives a beautifully even, fluid and expressive account of the songs.

Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra play the music to the manner born, and bring out all the subtlety of RVW's mature style.

The tendency to dig up composer's youthful works after their deaths is a fashion of dubious value, too often the works are best left on the composer's shelves. But here, the RVW Society has given us some mature RVW in new formats which help make the music better known. And certainly the earliest works on the disc, the Three Nocturnes, are of major interest both for their being an early encounter between RVW and Whitman's poetry, and the way the writing of them spans his lessons with Ravel showing how his style developed.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1959), orchestrated Anthony Payne - Three Nocturnes for baritone and orchestra
Ralph Vaughan Williams, arranged Adrian Williams - A Road All Paved with Stars - A Symphonic Rhapsody
Ralph Vaughan Williams, arranged Philip Lane - Stricken Peninsula - An Italian Rhapsody for Orchestra
Ralph Vaughan Williams, orchestrated Anthony Payne - Four Last Songs.
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Jennifer Johnson (mezzo-soprano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Martyn Brabbins (conductor)
Recorded at Maida Vale Studios, 12 & 13 January 2015, 12 & 13 October 2015
ALBION RECORDS ALBCD028 1CD [64.23]
Available from Amazon.co.uk.

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