A motley but useful collection of Vaughan Williams' works, a
Discophage | France | 06/06/2008
(4 out of 5 stars)
"As the product info for this entry is fairly complete, I'll just add a few facts which I hope will be helpful to the prospective buyer. This 2-CD set from EMI-UK's "British Composers" Collection is a motley collection of choral and orchestral compositions spanning the whole of VW's compositional career, under the baton of three different conductors, with recordings of various origins.
Toward the Unknown Region (subtitled A Song for chorus & orchestra) from 1906 and Dona nobis pacem (A cantata for soprano and baritone soli, chorus & Orchestra) from 1936 were recorded in London on 16-18 April 1973 by the London Philharmonic Choir & Orchestra, Boult conducting, with Sheila Armstrong and John Carol Case as soloists in the cantata.
Fantasia (quasi variazione) on the old 104th Psalm Tune (1949) is quite original in its use of concertante piano and chorus (Busoni's Piano Concerto comes to mind) and was recorded on Feb 12, 1970 by Peter Katin and the same forces as above (save the two singers, of course).
The performers of the Magnificat (1932), recorded on June 16, 1970, are Helen Watts, the women's voices from the Ambrosian Singers, Christopher Hyde-Smith (flute), the Orchestra Nova of London under Meredith Davies.
Partita for double string orchestra (1948) and Concerto Grosso (1950) were recorded by the LPO under Boult, 10 & 15 October 1975.
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910) was done on June 5 1959 by the Philharmonia under Malcom Sargent.
Romance in D flat for harmonica with strings and pianoforte (1951): Larry Adler (harmonica), Eric Gritton (piano), BBC SO, Sargent, 20 october 1952.
The Lark Ascending - Romance for violin and orchestra (1914-20): Jean Pougnet, LPO, Boult, 21 october 1952.
The sound in the recordings from the 1970s is excellent, full and deep and with fine stereo definition. Even the 1959 Tallis Fantasia comes in good stereo. Understandably the two recordings from 1952 show their sonic age, and The Lark Ascending in particular sounds very frayed, more so than on its previous CD appearance, a British "Great Recordings of the Century" CD with other early Boult recordings, including the 6th Symphony with both revised and original versions of the scherzo (Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 6 in E minor/ A Song of Thanksgiving/ The Lark Ascending).
In fact, none of this material is new on CD, so beware of possible duplications. Most of it was first reissued on the EMI Studio mid-price label at the end of the 1980s: Toward the Unknown Region came with Sancta civitas & Five Mystical songs, both conducted by Sir David Willcocks (Vaughan Williams : Sancta Civitas / Five Mystical Songs / Toward the Unknown Region), Dona nobis pacem was with the Mass in G performed by the King's College Choir again under Willcocks and the motet O Clap Your Hands (Dona Nobis Pacem),Magnificat and Fantasia on the Old 104th were paired with Flos Campi and An Oxford Elegy conducted by Willcocks (Vaughan Williams: Flos Campi/An Oxford Elegy/Magnificat/Fantasia on the Old 104th Psalm Tune), Partita came with Job also by Boult (Job), Tallis Fantasia with other VW compositions by Sargent (Vaughan Williams:Overture 'The Wasps'/Fantasia on 'Greensleeves'/Fantasia on a Theme by Rallis/Serenade to Music/ Toward athe Unknown Region). As for The Romance, it came on a Larry Adler collection, "Larry Adler in Concert", on the British Emi Phoenixa label (In Concert). Only for the Concerto Grosso have I been unable to locate a previous CD reissue, but I'd be surprised if there hadn't been one.
I won't risk an opinion on interpretations, as I am not familiar with these pieces and the competing recordings, but Boult was, with Barbirolli, the epitome of the Vaughan Williams champion, and Sargent was also pretty active as such, so one can assume they are authoritative (I've read some lukewarm comments on Boult's Concerto Grosso, though). Now, for the compositions themselves, while I found Toward the Unknown Region and the Piano Fantasia pretty bombastic, I thought Dona Nobis Pacem and Magnificat were superb works (the latter somewhere in between Debussy's Prelude à l'après-midi d'un faune and Sibelius). The harmonica Romance is fun and The Lark Ascending, Tallis Fantasia and Partita of course do not need my endorsement.