"Vaughan Williams' hymns and religious works leave many Christian compositions for dead. [Not bad for an avowed agnostic!]I loved the Matthew Best version, with narration by the superb John Gielgud. The use of the Thomas Tallis Fantasia music was one of the things which attracted me to this work, but you will have to listen hard to hear any of the Fantasia in this version. [I understand that the Best version is based on the radio play, which used that music at scene changes.] However, this is a wonderful performance. The recording quality is excellent, and you will enjoy John Noble's sterling performance as Pilgrim, and Robert Lloyd's evil evocation of Apollyon [with delightfully corny, circa 1970s sound effects on his voice!] The well researched liner notes tell us that Noble had performed the the role at Cambridge in 1954,and that his performance had moved Vaughan Williams deeply.It would be interesting to know how the tinker from Bedford would have reacted to his simple story being set to music [and by one he would have regarded as being a citizen of the City of Destruction!]The depiction of Vanity Fair is one of the highlights, as is the opening setting of the hymn tune, York.Highly recommended."
"Vaughan Williams worked on The Pilgrim's Progress intermittently for over forty years. The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains was published as a separate work in the 1920s. Work continued in the 1930s and 1940s and he used themes from it in his 5th symphony. It was first performed at Covent Garden as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951 and the production was terrible. Its failure was a bitter blow to the composer because the work meant a lot to him. He was cheered up a lot by a fine amateur production in Cambridge in 1954. The part of Pilgrim was taken by a young physics student, John Noble. He takes the lead on this recording which dates from 1972.
This is one of what the writer, Michael Kennedy, called RVW's 'problem operas'. Theatrically, it is rather static and there is little character development. Kennedy thinks it should be considered as a series of tableaux vivants. One can argue about this ad nauseam but the main thing to bear in mind is that the opera is what RVW meant to express. He is known for being a modest man but in fact he recognised when he had created something good. He knew the value of his own work. Opera is not a word that appears in the title: he calls it a Morality. So it is best to accept the work on its own terms.It is based on Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress with other biblical words added in. It tells of Pilgrim's (he is not called Christian as RVW wanted it be be accessible to people of all faiths. He himself was an atheist) journey to the Celestial City. He fights Apollyon (the devil), visits Vanity Fair, gets thrown in gaol and finds a pastoral idyll in the Delectable Mountains. The music is scary and witty at times but the overall impression is one of visionary beauty and great nobility. There is no doubt as to its spirituality and the music related to the 5th symphony takes me to emotional regions that no other music can. It may have its problems as a stage work but it is an ideal gramophone opera.The digital remastering is very successful with only a hint of tape hiss at quiet moments. The recording is very acceptable given it is 30 years old. The rehearsal recording reveals the unexpected wit of Boult. All the performances are excellent. An important, even historic, recording."
bob turnley | birmingham,al,usa | 07/25/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Vaughan Williams worked on this work for years and it shows. This opera is representative of everything he's ever done. And even though there's no rape and murder, this is opera not oratorio. The characters sing to each other. Boult's tempi may be too consistently stately for non-British ears, but there's no denying the power and majesty of this score.
Fortunately the cast was up to the task. John Noble is no one's idea of a star baritone, but in this role he sings like a star. I've heard all the great Verdi baritones but I wouldn't trade Noble's performance for anyone's. From this cast, Robert Lloyd had the most international career and he is used to great effect. The angelic tenor of Ian Partridge is featured in the beautiful scene at the 'House Blessed.' This scene is easily the equal of the composer's ravishing "Serenade to Music."
With 27m of rehearsals included, this album is a treasure. My only problem with the remastering from 1972 is the dynamic range. You've got to turn it up pretty loud to hear the numerous quiet passages. Vaughan William fans who don't require melodrama in their operas will be very pleased indeed."
A work of Protestant faith that's unknown in the U.S.
Santa Fe Listener | Santa Fe, NM USA | 07/16/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"As a touchstone of English Protestant faith, John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress has had more influence than any work other than the Bible. For generations every schoolchild knew its episodes, and when Thackeray entitled hsi most famous novel Vanity Fair, he assumed that any educated or even semi-educated reader would pick up the reference. Against that bacground, VW was setting a sacred text that was also a pillar of British culture.
He did an inspired job. This "Morality," which isn't quite an opera or an oratorio, is nobly conceived. Nobility is a hard mood to keep going without the risk of boredom, but VW supplies his loveliest melodies and considerable dramatic instincts here. The problem for us Americans is that we don't read Pilgrim's Progress, so any adaptation lacks the ring of familiarity. We are hearing for the first time a very long allegroy a la The Dream of Gerontius, another beloved English classic that has little currency in the U.S.
I only mention this because I avoided the opera for a long time thinking that it would feel too foreign or churchy. In fact, this work well could be his vocal masterpiece (despite some diffuse writing and a general sense of anti-climax towards the end); any lover of VW's music will be more satisfied, I think, than with Elgar's Gerontius--for one thing, Bunyan's words make a finer text than Cardinal Newman's earnest Victorian religiosity. The performance under Adrian Boult is all that one could ask for, and EMI's 1972 sound still comes across very well.
Even if the Pilgrim's soul journey doesn't matter to you, this CD can be appreciated sheerly for the sake of VW's gorgeous music.
P.S. - As another reviewer mentions, there is also a radio play from 1943 that is different form this version. It was memorably revised by the BBC in 1975 with John Gielgud taking on the role of Christain. I know that performance but not the later recording with Gielgud, doubling as both narrator and pilgrim, under Matthew Best."