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Ralph Vaughan Williams

Information on Select Concertos & Concertante Works

Concerto in A minor for Oboe and Strings

An archetypally "pastoral" sounding piece, with the oboe soloist using the lush sound of the instrument to evoke the spirit of the countryside. Ironically, it was written as war raged in Europe for the oboe player Leon Goossens (to whom it was dedicated). In fact, the piece's premiere at a London Proms concert was delayed because of the danger of V1 rocket raids, and it was first performed in Liverpool instead. The first movement has RVW's trademark lovely string writing, whilst the second movement seems inspired by folk music; the finale provides a light hearted ending. You won't find many better woodwind concertos, it is a pity Vaughan Williams wrote only one.

Recommended Recordings:
Jonathan Small, oboe. Royal Liverpool Symphony Orchestra; Vernon Handley. EMI (Classics for Pleasure) CDM641142
D. Theodore, oboe; London Symphony Orchestra; Bryden Thomson. Chandos CHAN9262/3

Piano Concerto in C

Vaughan Williams was never happy writing for the piano as a solo instrument. Nevertheless, he produced a full-blooded, virtuoso concerto in the Romantic tradition, using the keyboard writing of Busoni as his model. It's also a monument of British modernism and looks forward to the masterful Symphony No. 4. The Piano Concerto was revised on the recommendation of Sir Adrian Boult to improve the balance of the piece. This upset the original soloist, Harriet Cohen, to whom it was dedicated – however, she was eventually reconciled.
In the 40s, however, Vaughan Williams, on the advice of friends, persuaded himself that the orchestra overwhelmed the piano. So with the help of Joseph Cooper he arranged the piece for two pianos and orchestra. He was, as it turns out, mistaken. Howard Shelley has very ably proven that the right soloists can hold their own.

Recommended Recordings:
Howard Shelley, piano; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Vernon Handley. Lyrita SRCD.211
Vitya Vronsky and Victor Babin, duo-pianists; London Philharmonic Orchestra; Adrian Boult. Angel (LP) S-36625
Ralph Markham and Kenneth Broadway, duo-pianists; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Sir Yehudi Menuhin. Virgo VJ 5 61105-2

Concerto Accademico in D

Written for violin and string orchestra. This is Vaughan Williams' homage to the Bach Concerto for 2 Violins, a work he loved so much; he requested they play it at his funeral (and they did). The work has the same rhythmic vigor and forward impulse as its model and curiously anticipates Hindemith's mature neo-classical manner.

Recommended Recordings:
James Buswell, violin; London Symphony Orchestra; André Previn. RCA 6238-2
Kenneth Sillito, violin; London Symphony Orchestra; Bryden Thomson. Chandos 92623

Fantasia on Old 104th

For piano, chorus, and orchestra. Meditations on a hymn tune. It's an odd work (which I prefer to Beethoven's Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage for the same general forces), and it signals Vaughan Williams' interest during his very long old age in creating new orchestral sounds. The piano writing does not call attention to itself as such, but the musical ideas have the all the affability of granite, and much of its strength as well. It's a hard work to get to know, but definitely worth it.

Recommended Recordings:
Peter Katin, piano; London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra; Adrian Boult. EMI CDM769962-2

Flos Campi

For viola, wordless chorus, and orchestra. From its astonishing opening in several different simultaneous keys (which sound absolutely right together) to its final, lush murmurs, this work enthralls you with passion of Solomon's Song of Songs. More a viola concerto than a cantata (Vaughan Williams uses the chorus as added color in his orchestra, just as Ravel does in Daphnis et Chloé), this is essentially variations on the pentatonic scale, which makes it sound both folk-like and oriental at the same time. For such a strange work, (its title means "Flower of the Fields"), it has had its fair share of recordings.
I would avoid Riddle and Del Mar, who for once fails to generate the excitement almost bursting out of the work. My favorite, Aronowitz with David Willcocks conducting, is not currently available. However, Abravanel on Vanguard Classics and Best on Hyperion provide attractive alternatives.

Recommended Recordings:
Cecil Aronowitz, viola; Choir of King's College, Cambridge; The Jacques Orchestra; David Willcocks. EMI CDM769962-2
Utah Symphony Orchestra; Maurice Abravanel. Vanguard Classics OVC 4053
Imai, viola; Corydon Singers; English Chamber Orchestra; Matthew Best. Hyperion CDA 66420.

The Lark Ascending

This work is subtitled "A Romance for violin and small orchestra" – and Vaughan Williams tended to reserve the title "Romance" for some of his favourite and most lyrical pieces. It was originally written in 1914, but the outbreak of war delayed its first performance and it was revised by the composer in 1920. It is ironic that a work evoking the tranquillity of pre-war England would be premeried in the same land now shattered by war 6 years later.
This is a bona fide and thoroughly-deserved VW Hit. It is one of the most artistically dangerous works I know. It begins with the solo violin imitating the swoops of a bird, and it risks either monotony or ridicule. Although it sounds free, it's built very tight and not one note outstays its welcome. The music seems to rise and fall with the lark's flight and ends in the ecstatic ether.
Many have recorded this work, but the recordings below have stood the test of time. Brown does well, but Marriner for some reason seems asleep. All the energy comes from the soloist. Hugh Bean and Adrian Boult both have the measure of the score.

Recommended Recordings:
Iona Brown, violin; Academy of St. Martin's in the Fields; Neville Marriner. Argo 414595-2
Hugh Bean, violin; New Philharmonia Orchestra; Adrian Boult. EMI CDC747218-2

Romance for Harmonica

A gift for the American expatriot Larry Adler. A composer doesn't normally get the chance to write for this instrument, but according to Adler, VW exploited the instrument's capabilities idiomatically on the first go. The opening chords from the harmonica, he said, could have come straight out of an instruction chart, but this misses the point. What we get is a wonderfully poetic piece for a neglected instrument, sort of a Lark Ascending for mouth harp. British virtuoso Tommy Reilly has recorded the piece at least twice with Marriner and the ASMF, but I have a lingering tenderness for Adler's rendition, conducted by Morton Gould (not currently available).

Recommended Recordings:
Larry Adler, harmonica; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Morton Gould. RCA (LP) LSC-3078
Tommy Reilly, harmonica; Academy of St. Martin's in the Fields; Neville Marriner. Chandos CHAN6545

Suite for Viola

Eight sections (including a Musette, a Carol, and a Polka melancolique) arranged in three groups – that should tell you something of Vaughan Williams' idiosyncratic sense of form. Yet, the music sounds perfectly natural. It's not a major work, like Flos campi, but it does touch the heart. Riddle and Norman Del Mar perform the only available recording. I prefer a long out-of-print LP with violist Melvin Berger and conductor John Snashall.

Recommended Recordings:
Frederick Riddle, viola; Bournemouth Sinfonietta; Norman Del Mar. Chandos CHAN6545
Melvin Berger, viola; English Chamber Orchestra; John Snashall. Golden Guinea (LP) GGC 4049

Concerto in F minor for Bass Tuba

In the last decade of his life Vaughan Williams took to experimenting with what could well be considered as "unusual" instruments; in the 7th, 9th and 9th symphonies he included a wind machine, tuned gongs and flugelhorn respectively. During the same period Vaughan Williams also wrote two works for soloist and orchestra, the harmonica romance and the tuba concerto, both emphasise the fact that Vaughan Williams was still full of ideas well into his Eighties.
RVW seemed to have quite liked the tuba as an instrument, and often included parts for it in his orchestral works. However, in his Tuba Concerto it gets centre stage, and proves that it can hold its own as a concerto instrument. Musically, the Tuba Concerto is notable for having two cadenzas – in the first and last movements. Vaughan Williams justified this by saying the concerto was more akin to the Bach style than the Mozart-Beethoven one. The central Romanza movement is probably the most popular part of this work, and it exists in versions for euphonium, bassoon, cello and piano.

Recommended Recordings:
P.Harrild, soloist; London Symphony Orchestra; Bryden Thomson. Chandos CHAN9262/3
Arrangement for Cello: Julian Lloyd Webber, soloist; ASMF, Neville Marriner. Philips 442530-2

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