NORMAN STINCHCOMBE REVIEWS MORE CDs CELEBRATING THE VAUGHAN WILLIAMS ANNIVERSARY
The flood of releases to mark the 150th anniversary of Vaughan Williams’ birth continues unabated – first recordings of obscure and minor works; ingenious transcriptions of familiar ones; and archive recordings of his symphonies. The title work in ‘Pan’s Anniversary’ (Soloists & Britten Sinfonia / Gould / Albion Records) ★★★ is a musical accompaniment for Ben Jonson’s masque of 1621 created to honour James I. The original music was lost and under time pressure for the outdoor premiere at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1905 Gustav Holst chipped in with some dance arrangements. In Jacobean times what mattered about masques were the elaborate costumes, dazzling special effects, stage machinery and the frisson of seeing the nobility and courtiers taking part. In purely musical terms what we have is pleasant but insubstantial fare, nicely delivered by the singers, speakers (the excellent Timothy and Sam West) chorus and orchestra under William Vann. Timothy Burke’s arrangement of the ‘Tallis Fantasia’, for strings and voices, fails to match the original’s sublimity.
The arrangements on ‘Vaughan Williams on Brass’ (Tredegar Town Band, Brabbins / Porthouse / Albion Records) ★★★★★ are much more successful and entertaining. In Philip Littlemore’s ingenious brass band arrangement of the 1954 Tuba Concerto soloist Ross Knight gives a virtuoso performance with the normally galumphing tuba exquisitely nimble and light on its feet. Littlemore again provides the score for the ‘English Folk Songs Suite’ – best known in Gordon Jacob’s version for orchestra but resplendent here in a revision of RVW’s original brass form. A host of shorter works include the ‘Flourish for Band’, ‘Variations for Brass Band’ and – suitably for the Tredegar Town Band – ‘Prelude on Three Welsh Hymn Tunes’.
The recordings made in Brangwyn Hall, Swansea are top class. In ‘Vaughan Williams Live Volume 1’ (Somm Recordings) ★★★ audio restorer Lani Spahr has done a fine job on live tapes of the composer’s sparkling ‘Wasps’ overture (1957) plus Symphonies No.6 (1964) and No.9 (1958). The first two recordings were made at the Albert Hall the other at the Royal Festival Hall both of which have tricky acoustics – boomy and cramped respectively. The BBC Symphony Orchestra and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra were conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent, a conductor better than his ‘Flash Harry’ nickname and trademark carnation-in-the-buttonhole suggests. The ‘Wasps’ crackles with energy and his approach to the symphonies is vigorous in a way the composer appreciated. No rival for the best modern recordings – Andrew Davis and Haitink – but interesting nevertheless.