3.5 stars - an interesting concert with some drawbacks
Larry VanDeSande | Mason, Michigan United States | 02/06/2010
(3 out of 5 stars)
"I was in the market for a new recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) Oboe concerto and the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis so I took a flyer on this recent recording. The oboist, Hungarian Lajos Lencses (born 1943), is the principal soloist, playing the concerto, assisting tenor Andreas Weller in the Blake songs, and playing a part in the Household Music, here in a version for three strings and oboe.
The concerto, written in 1944, opens the concert. I like Lencses' playing but it won't please all tastes. He has a narrow and reedy, almost piercing, tone compared to more rounded and open performances I've heard such as David Theodore's with Bryden Thomsen Ralph Vaughan Williams: A Pastoral Symphony (Symphony No. 3) / Oboe Concerto - Bryden Thomson. In addition, some will question whether the accompaniment and overall approach is idiomatic. Both Lencses and the Budapest Strings under Bela Banfalvi take a more strident, rhythmic, punchy and dancelike approach to the first two movements than you may have heard before. The finale is vintage Vaughan Williams.
Lencses accompanies German tenor Andreas Weller on the Ten Blake Songs Vaughan Williams composed in his penultimate year for a documentary on William Blake's writings and paintings. You notice pretty quickly Weller is not a native English speaker, especially if you have any sound competition going on when you listen. The songs themselves plumb human emotions on themes of happiness, cruelty, wandering, anger and more. Best for me are "Cruelty Has A Human Heart" and "He who binds to himself a joy," a song about eternity. Weller, while challenged in his English (his peace sounds a little like pizza), performs well for the most part in these intimate and captivating songs that don't have a lot of recorded performances outside John Mark Ainsley's Vaughan Williams - Along the Field on Wenlock Edge · Merciless Beauty · Ten Blake Songs, and others / Ainsley · The Nash Ensemble. If you can't figure out the words from listening to Weller, you can read the text in the booklet.
Household Music was originally composed for string quartet and is performed here with the oboe substituting for first violin. Vaughan Williams wrote the three "preludes" on Welsh hymn tunes, capitalizing, as he did in much of his music, on songs of and near his native land. This is pastoral Vaughan Williams in miniature, with the four players integrating for a blended sound. The Tallis Fantasia played by the Budapest Strings under Banfalvi shows the intenisity in the music, not the glorious string sound or multiplex emotional beauty. At 14:07, it is faster than the norm; compared to Barbirolli Elgar: Introduction and Allegro: Serenade; Elegy; Sospiri, who takes 16:09, this performance seems rapid, and maybe linear, but not wrong.
Even though my review pounts out the warts in this release, I have enjoyed playing it a handful of times. It's different than what I normally hear people do with Vaughan Williams. The booklet tells you something about all the music in German, English and French and includes the English text and German translations of Blake's songs.
In addition, the sound is truly exemplary. Recorded in Stuttgart in 2006-7, this sounds as good as many super audio recordings I've heard. The sound jumps out at you, a little bit in your face, and with enough space to fill your room. You don't have to turn this up very loud to hear everything (except Weller's English), either. The clarity and projection is a strong selling point for this interesting Vaughan Williams concert that should give pause to any fan of the composer, or neophyte, looking for a collection both familiar and off the beaten path.