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In the last few months I found myself reviewing two very fine César Franck discs on the occasion of the two hundredth anniversary of the composer's birth. Now, on my desk, I find myself tasked with another such review, this time focusing on a Ralph Vaughan Williams (RVW) programme that has been collated in celebration of the 150th anniversary of his birth.
So far there have been numerous releases, particularly from British labels, of Vaughan Williams' set of nine symphonies and other popular pieces, but this Albion issue is dedicated to less familiar fare. Indeed, this label is the official recording source of the RVW Society, so the programme presented, which includes many rarities, is really no surprise.
Aptly entitled Pan's Anniversary, it takes its name from a work put together by Vaughan Williams, when time was at a premium, for the 1905 Shakespeare Birthday Celebration at Stratford-upon-Avon. In Jacobean and Stuart times, masques were a popular form of entertainment, and Pan's Anniversary, written by Ben Jonson in 1621, was one that went down very well with the public. Indeed, its popularity lasted well into the Edwardian era, and Vaughan Williams produced a beguiling work that satisfied the tastes of his day, which were mainly centred on the fascinating world of Greek mythology and the exploration of English folk music. The latter aspect was, after all, one of Vaughan Williams' lifelong passions.
Pan's Anniversary is a glorious work of immense imagination in which the relatively young composer displays his gift of integrating four different cultural strands - Ancient Greece, Jacobean festivities, traditional English music and Edwardian majesty - into one whole. The piece is also a unique mixture of orchestral, solo vocal, choral, instrumental and spoken word. As already cited, Vaughan Williams was severely hampered by time constraints, so he concentrated his own contribution on the four hymns for solo voices, chorus and orchestra that provide the work's musical platform, as well as two short orchestral movements: the Introduction and the 'Loud Music' that comes before the two passages of spoken word.
Listen — Vaughan Williams: Hymn I - Of Pan we Sing (Pan's Anniversary)
(ALBCD 054 track 9, 0:00-0:39) ℗ 2022 Albion Records :
Other passages were left in the care of RVW's colleague Gustav Holst, adapting traditional music as well as music by English virginalist Giles Farnaby, and further traditional music was provided by a local troupe of morris dancers. For lovers of Edwardian music and its earlier roots there is so much to enjoy here. Holst's contributions are atmospherically assured, while the traditional tunes of the 'Antimasque' have a true feeling for the folk style.
Although Pan's Anniversary is the dominant piece of this celebratory disc, the fillers are no less fascinating. Margery Wentworth is a touching tribute to Jane Seymour's mother and grandmother of Edward VI, while choir and orchestra are protagonist in two of RVW's student works, both Tennyson settings written while he was still under the wing of Sir Charles Stanford. The elegiac Peace, Come Away is notable for its distinctive wind-instrument accompaniment, while To Sleep! To Sleep! is a moving orchestral piece with an animated sweep to it. Both should rouse unusual curiosity, particularly in lovers of RVW's music.
Listen — Vaughan Williams: To Sleep! To Sleep!
(ALBCD 054 track 24, 0:44-1:41) ℗ 2022 Albion Records :
Timothy Burke's extraordinary choral arrangement of the Tallis Fantasia will definitely raise some eyebrows, but I must admit I found this version absolutely inspiring and its appeal has an infectious magic that draws the listener into the very core of RVW's creation. Undoubtedly Burke's arrangement of this masterpiece deserves wider performance, but its extraordinary vocal demands might limit it to professional choruses.
Listen — Vaughan Williams, arranged by Timothy Burke: Tallis Fantasia
(ALBCD 054 track 26, 0:00-1:00) ℗ 2022 Albion Records :
The programme is completed by a vibrantly forthright a cappella rendition of Tallis' original psalm setting.
William Vann is a man on a mission, and his sensitive conducting is by turns imposing and radiant. Indeed, these performances are the result of deep immersion in the performing traditions of RVW's repertoire, where the full awareness of the composer's sound world and expressive impact are of paramount importance. A peach of an addition to the RVW catalogue in superb sound quality and eye-catching presentation. This is indeed history in the making in the annals of RVW recordings. Unmissable, especially for the composer's legion of admirers.
Copyright © 12 August 2022
CD INFORMATION - RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: PAN'S ANNIVERSARY