Wednesday 12 September 2018

Practical & working composer: Vaughan Williams choral premieres from Royal Hospital, Chelsea

Earth & Sky - Ralph Vaughan Williams - ALBION
Ralph Vaughan Williams choral premieres; Chapel Choir of the ROyal Hospital, Chelsea, William Vann; Albion Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 September 2018 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
An album of hitherto unrecorded, small-scale choral works which show RVW as a practical and useful composer

This enterprising new disc from the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, director William Vann on Albion Records (the recording arm of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society) draws together over twenty small-scale choral works by RVW which have not been recorded before, and some are in fact unpublished. The music ranges from the very early (1896) to very late (1954) with a mixture of original compositions and arrangements.

Some of the music is unaccompanied, some with piano and some with organ. The disc is arranged in a roughly chronological order with some re-arrangement to group similar works together. We start with the early Vocal Valses from The Songs of the Wrens, delightful short waltzes with piano accompaniment (provided by William Vann) setting poems by Tennyson, which come from a cycle the poet wrote for Sir Arthur Sullivan to set. They seem to use Brahms' Liebeslieder Walztes as a model and whilst they hardly sound like mature RVW, they have great charm.

Sound Sleep was written in 1903 as a test piece for the East Lincolnshire Musical Festival, commissioned by RVW's cousin Margaret Massingberd of Gunby Hall (now a National Trust property). A setting of Christina Rosetti for female voices and piano, it combines a lovely undulating piano with gently flowing voices in close harmony developing from the quietly thoughtful into something more.

Next follows a group of arrangements for male voices, re-working both folk songs (The Jolly Ploughboy), well-known songs (Old Folks at Home) and English ballads (A Farmer's Boy, The World it Went Well with Me Then, Tobacco's but an Indian Weed) which date from between 1908 and 1934. These are striking arrangments, often simple and direct but RVW creates some very rich textures from his men's voices. The words of the final one Tobacco's but an Indian Weed are particularly delightful and certainly rather non-PC!

The final male voice piece is RVW's own arrangement of a tune which began life as part of the 'Prelude' to the suite from his film score 49th Parallel. This became The New Commonwealth (1943) and is here sung by unaccompanied male voices in a thoughtful piece full of rich harmony.

O Praise the Lord of Heaven, for choir and organ, dates from 1913 and is a setting of psalm 148 written for the London Church Choir Association's 40th annual festival. It uses two SATB choral groups, creating some striking antiphonal effects. Whilst the work clearly would benefit from being sung by larger forces, the 20 singers of the choir do it remarkable justice (though you get a greater sense of individual voices than you would with a bigger group) and you wonder why the work is not better known.

My Soul, Praise the Lord is a setting based on Psalm 104 for choir and organ from 1934, creating a rather hymn-like anthem, whilst Little Cloister from 1935 is a new setting of Percy Dearmer's hymn which never seems to have quite made it into Songs of Praise. A Hymn to Freedom from 1939 uses words by Canon George Briggs and is another hymn which is not well known.

England, My England from 1941 uses baritone solo, double choir and unison voices with orchestra, here performed in the keyboard reduction on organ. Adrian Boult commissioned a patriotic piece from RVW, and he set words by William Ernest Henley (1849-1903) which can seem rather jingoistic now, but probably worked well in 1941; it is a piece that might be tricky for modern choirs to programme without a strong sense of context.

A Call to the Free Nations again sets Canon Briggs, along with A Hymn to Freedom this was RVW's contribution to Five Wartime Hymns. The Airmen's Hymn is in fact a unison song setting a hymn by the 2nd Earl of Lytton, who asked RVW to set it but Westminster Abbey rejected it (as there weren't hymns for the Army and the Navy!). The Land of our Birth originally came from RVW's 1943 piece Thanksgiving for Victory (later renamed A Song of Thanksgiving), and it is here performed in RVW's version for unison children's voices with optional descant with keyboard accompaniment.

Hymn for St Margaret of Scotland is a new hymn from 1948 with words by Ursula Vaughan Williams, intended for the Scottish version of the English Hymnal.

The final works on the disc are the most recent, arrangements of Gaelic folksongs from 1954. They are performed here in Ursula Vaughan Williams' English translations, though it would be interesting to hear the original Gaelic.

These are not great works, and individually some are quite small scale, but RVW felt strongly that a composer's work needed to be practical and most of the works on the disc were written to be useful, often to be sung by amateurs. The performances from William Vann and the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, are completely admirable with the choir giving us some lovely clear bright tone and good clear words. The result adds up to a remarkable picture of RVW, the practical and working composer.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) - Three Vocal Valses from The Songs of the Wrens
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Sound Sleep
Ralph Vaughan Williams - The Jolly Ploughboy
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Old Folks at Home
Ralph Vaughan Williams - A Farmer's Boy
Ralph Vaughan Williams - The World It Went Well with Me Then
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Tobacco's but an Indian Weed
Ralph Vaughan Williams - The New Commonwealth
Ralph Vaughan Williams - O Praise the Lord of Heaven
Ralph Vaughan Williams - My soul, Praise the Lord
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Little Cloister
Ralph Vaughan Williams - A Hymn of Freedom
Ralph Vaughan Williams - England, My England
Ralph Vaughan Williams - A Call to the Free Nations
Ralph Vaughan Williams - The Airmen's Hymn
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Land of Our Birth
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Hymn for St Margaret of Scotland
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Three Gaelic Songs
Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea
Hugh Rowlands (organ)
William Vann (director and piano)
Recorded at St Jude on the Hill, Hampstead, London, 16-18 February 2018

Available from Amazon.

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  • Just what it says on the tin, an enchanting Enchanted Island from British Youth Opera  (★★★★) - opera review
  • A substantial monument: Patrick Hawes talks about The Great War Symphony - interview
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  • Certainly not boring: Rolando Villazón in Mozart's La clemenza di Tito on Deutsche Grammophon (★★★½)  - CD review
  • Sleeping Beauty awakes with a lively afternoon of Victorian & Edwardian light music at the BBC Proms  (★★★★) - concert review
  • Language, Catalan culture & audience engagement: I chat to mezzo Marta Fontanals Simmons - Interview
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  • Sheer delight: Vivaldi's Concerti da Camera  (★★★★½) - CD review
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