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CD Review

Ralph Vaughan Williams

Albion 33

Beyond My Dream - Music for Greek Plays

  • The Bacchae: Thou Immaculate on High
  • Onward O Labouring Tread
  • O for the Ships of Troy
  • Prelude
  • Dark of the Sea
  • Bird of the Sea Rocks
  • O, Fair the Fruits of Leto Blow
  • Go Forth in Bliss
Heather Lowe, mezzo soprano
Joyful Company of Singers
Britten Sinfonia/Alan Tongue
Albion ALBCD033
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Albion Records is the recording label of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society. A less than (fully) appreciated composer, Vaughan Williams, deserves the meticulous, imaginative and solid approach which this joint venture between label and Society has brought in recent years to some of his less well-known music. Indeed, these are world première recordings. And splendid ones. This CD is recommended for all lovers of this major British composer of the twentieth century, whose creativity and originality in some ways put him on a par with the era's greatest.

Yes, they are works from Vaughan Williams' early years. But they have some of the tonal subtlety and delicacy of the composer's later works. The music is gentle, understated, at times soft almost; yet constructed with a fine-pointed stylus. Truly in keeping with the center of gravity of Greek art itself. Nothing is superfluous; but nothing necessary is left out… the coupling between text and melody, texture and dramatic motion, tension and purpose is admirable.

The classicist Gilbert Murray (actually related to W.S. Gilbert the dramatist) was known to Vaughan Williams. Politically and intellectually they had much in common… agnosticism but with a love of spiritual culture (what the composer called (his) "churchiness"); a tempered patriotism; a sense of social justice; a belief in the breadth of culture which extended to the value of collective ("folk" music) and anonymous (necessarily self-effacing, perhaps, like the Greek playwrights) authorship. It was also Murray whose (then) definitive texts and editions of many Greek plays informed and inspired generations at the start of the twentieth century. These included Vaughan Williams. Murray posited that Greek tragedy had its origins in ritual, and in the wish for annual death and rebirth the following year. Strangely, perhaps, for a scholar who thought so deeply about sound, intonation, meter, rhythm, pace and aural impact, Murray was frighteningly unmusical. Yet he knew that – over and above the rhythms of Greek verse – contemporary performances must have had music.

In the first decade of the last century Bantock and Holst were both already working with Murray and his texts when Vaughan Williams, too, developed his interest in Greek drama. He had learnt Greek well at school and clearly felt an identity with its lyricism. This aspect of the art managed to combine declamation with an acknowledgement of archetypal suffering, joy, remorse and acceptance. The music that Vaughan Williams wrote for Sophocles' "Electra", and Euripides' "The Bacchae" and "Iphigenia in Tauris" (here expertly realized from the composer's short score by director Alan Tongue) is neither rhetorical nor overblown. At the same time, it is not a mere undercurrent or "accompaniment". It's known that the composer experimented extensively with a variety of techniques… chant, operatic, declamation. In the end what we have here (contemporary performances were either unsuccessful or failed to take place altogether) is something whole, convincing and of value for its melodiousness, winning harmonies and clear, conclusive understanding of several ways in which music can become one with such poetry – rather than act as a curiosity.

The music consists of passages of various lengths of spoken, sung and orchestral material. There is, though, a remarkable unity and forward movement in each of the three works offered here. More akin to the tones of Handel's less rhetorical oratorios than Vaughan Williams's film music or his lovely "Scholar Gypsy" which is a marvel of the marriage between music and verse. They are built on understatement and restraint in a remarkable way. And such appropriate combination of text and independent musical idea is wonderfully brought out by these performers. They see no need to add the blazing, the whispering, or the aggrandizing. It's music which hints at the wistful, the regretful, the demanding and also the affirming. But never by having tried to add anything extra to the spirit and basis of the dramatic texts themselves. They are through-composed and conceived as wholes. They never try to stray from their original purposes. Chief of these is to mirror (neither outdo nor comment on) the original drama. The performances on this CD first and foremost confirm the primacy of Greek drama in our culture with beauty and simple suaveness.

The performance is universally fine. Heather Lowe's mezzo voice is warm yet authoritative. She seems to have approached her work on this CD with a modesty that nevertheless helps to paint a rich and striking picture. The Britten Sinfonia, of course, is superb and carries any weakness arising, perhaps, from the music's patchy compositional history. They, too, understand the idiom and hold the composer at the elbow without thrusting him forward when there is a chance of such an unadorned understanding of music and words might date. They are well supported by the Joyful Company of Singers, who are both joyful and direct. Alan Tongue (who was behind the Cambridge Mass also reviewed on Classical Net) directs with care and energy. This is more than a pleasant hour's wander into an enterprise that would either be unlikely nowadays, or fulfilled very differently with much more thrust, perhaps… one thinks of Birtwistle's attachment to this world. It's unostentatious music which understands its purpose and meets it well.

The acoustic – that of the oft-used St.Jude-on-the-Hill church in Hampstead, London – is warm and dry, contained and clean, focusing our attention on the music, not its "atmospherics". Balance between soloist, chorus and orchestra is perfect. The booklet starts where it should with an exposition of the pre-eminence of Murray, the background to these settings, the development of the composition and performance, the part played by Bantock, Holst and Isadora Duncan (clearly as much an inspiration to Vaughan Williams at the time when he was developing this music as she was also a kindred spirit). It also has the full texts in English, bios of the performers and – most usefully – a reading list. There is, of course, no other recording of these touching yet insightful works. These performers have both been true to the spirit with which Vaughan Williams approached the drama and produced music to suit – because it does not, for instance, accentuate either the melancholy or bursting introversion which seems part of the composer's (musical) personality to those listening superficially. But by insisting on – and delivering – clear and unhistrionic diction and articulation which makes the idiom immediately accessible to sensitive listeners. This should be in the collection of every lover of Vaughan Williams, for sure; but potentially form part of our understanding of how broadly text, drama and music were working together just a hundred years ago. Refreshing, convincing and beautiful.

Copyright © 2018, Mark Sealey