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CD Review

Ralph Vaughan Williams

  • Riders to the Sea
  • Household Music
  • Flos Campi
Lynne Dawson (Cathleen), soprano
Karl Daymond (Bartley), tenor
Ingrid Attrot (Nora), soprano
Linda Finnie (Maurya), mezzo-soprano
Pamela Helen Stephen (a woman), mezzo-soprano
Philip Dukes, viola
Northern Sinfonia/Richard Hickox Chandos CHAN9392
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Okay, I admit it, I bought this CD solely for Household Music, the premier recording of an unusual work, little known even among Vaughan Williams' fans. But first, the big stuff.

Because he was an idealist (as well as financially independent), Vaughan Williams wrote five operas, in a country at a time when professional opera was a shaky proposition. None of his operas have held the stage, and one (The Poisoned Kiss) has never enjoyed a professional production or a recording. Hugh the Drover has a libretto as silly as anything you'd find in early Verdi (this does not stop companies from presenting early Verdi) and beautiful tunes. The Poisoned Kiss, I read, also suffers from its libretto. The Pilgrim's Progress requires a major production with a large cast and chorus, singers who can act, an imaginative director who thinks of opera as drama rather than a vocal cock fight or a fashion show, and an ensemble as tight as Die Meistersinger, and it doesn't even give you Revenge, Intrigue, Murder, or a Love Scene. It contains, nevertheless, some of the composer's greatest music. Riders to the Sea, with the best libretto of the five (the composer set Synge's play practically straight), runs between a half and three-quarters of an hour. John in Love, a Falstaff, competes directly with Verdi. I happen to prefer it to Verdi (it contains one gorgeous tune after another), but it's hard to compete with a brand name. Even Nicolai's Merry Wives of Windsor is seldom done any more, at least in the States.

I confess I have absolutely no clue as to Synge's greatness as a playwright. I've read all the plays several times over the years and have yet to like even one. I get the message of Riders to the Sea (after all, he rubs the reader's nose in it) but say, "So what?" The only surviving son of an Irish woman leaves the house to sell horses on a bad day and drowns, just as you knew he would (all the other men in the house have drowned also). Perhaps it's a green thing. Vaughan Williams sets the play with great care for the cadence of speech. Musically, almost the entire span is consumed by thematic lines and harmonic progressions rising and falling by thirds. To me, it gets a bit wearisome (come on, man, where are the tunes?) until the climax, where the mother (Maurya) enters to bear witness to her son's death, and from then on, the music takes off.

Meredith Davies conducted a cast of first-rate voices (Helen Watts, Norma Burrowes, Margaret Price, and Benjamin Luxon) on an old EMI LP. Luxon excepted, however, the general level of diction stood no higher than the curb, so the care for declamation Vaughan Williams put into his score vanished. Hickox's cast you can understand, but the voices aren't as good. Also, the women's notion of pitch is so wide that you sometimes can't tell what note they're actually trying to hit. I can't call anyone in either cast a good actor. Dramatically, the singers give a "game try." Both bands - Hickox's Northern Sinfonia and Davies's Orchestra Nova of London – do well by the score, with the edge of clarity going to Hickox and beauty of sound going to Davies. In this score, a beautiful tone from the orchestra doesn't count as much as in other Vaughan Williams works. Still, for me the point of opera is drama, mainly from the singers, and I miss it here. Have you ever noticed that, among opera composers without much professional theater experience (Beethoven, Debussy, and Vaughan Williams, as opposed to Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, Massenet, Mozart, and Britten), most of the drama is interior? This may be due to an undeveloped sense of "stage picture" or of the usual singer's dramatic capability. Although Wagner's operas certainly benefit from good acting, they seem less vulnerable to bad. After all, Siegfried Wagner's innovative productions turned singers into monuments. Hit the mark (so the lighting effects work) and sing seem the main stuff required. Just a thought.

For Flos Campi ("flower of the field") Vaughan Williams took his inspiration from the Song of Songs and came up with, to me, his most sensuous work. The piece also exemplifies the originality of the composer's mind from its forces (solo viola, wordless chorus, and orchestra), to its form (a suite whose movements flow into one another - is it a concertante work? a tone poem? a cantata?) to its astonishing opening in several different simultaneous keys (which sound absolutely right together) to its final, lush murmurs. Essentially variations on the pentatonic scale, it sounds both folk-like and oriental at the same time. The work enthralls you with the passion and splendor of Solomon's songs. There's even a hint of Riders to the Sea here and there (composer completed it the same year he began on the opera). The forces required - a solo violist and a chorus - generally keep it out of the concert hall, but it has had its share of recordings, and I've heard most of them. My favorite until now features Cecil Aronowitz on the viola and David Willcocks conducting on an EMI release no longer available. Riddle and Del Mar on Chandos turned in a surprisingly pokey performance, considering the voltage Del Mar elicits in his other Vaughan Williams readings. Aronowitz and Willcocks were fine, but Dukes and Hickox move into first place and indeed generate more electricity in the work than one knew was there. As a soloist, Dukes plays full out, with one of the fullest, most gorgeous tones I've ever heard, and he nails the passagework besides. Rhythmically, he crackles. It's as if he can't wait to bite into the next phrase. Hickox matches the soloist volt for volt. He takes large chances with the music and pulls them off, most notably in (for me) the weakest section of the work - the march – where he slows it down a fraction and produces the glory of Solomon's court. In his performance, I hear more subsidiary lines than with other conductors. A fabulous job.

Household Music (wonderful title!) comes with a fascinating history. During World War II, the composer read of Londoners holing up in tube stops during the German bombing and thought it would be nice if they had something to play. Since he couldn't count on a specified set of instruments being available, he deliberately wrote it for any combination of instruments with the correct range for the parts. He also wrote it for amateurs. I would love to hear this work actually performed by a motley band, but here it's done by a string orchestra, with horn obbligato. Given the limitations the composer imposed upon himself, the great quality and substance of the work comes as a surprise. Having read and re-read Michael Kennedy's study of the composer (he gives no analytic space to the work and in a throwaway describes it as "charming"), I got knocked on my pins by the piece. This is neither light music nor a composer's holiday, and yet it lies well within amateur capabilities. The composer's absolute contrapuntal mastery resolves the apparent paradox.

The work takes three Welsh hymns on a ride. It really does help if you know the hymns, since Vaughan Williams almost never gives them to you straight. For example, in the second movement, he turns the first phrase of "St. Denio" into the ostinato of a lively scherzo. Only at the end of the movement does it turn into the hymn. The hymn of the first movement never sounds out at all, except in fracture and hints. The last movement goes through a theme and five variations on "Aberystwyth" (usually sung to "Watchman, Tell Us of the Night"), but even in the statement of the theme, Vaughan Williams breaks up every phrase of the hymn and passes them round among the players. I've emphasized the craft of the work because, first, many critics of a certain age dismiss Vaughan Williams as an "amateur," and, second, because it's hard to believe such beauty comes from the intellect as well as the soul. The work can easily overwhelm a listener's emotions. I'd encourage any chamber group to invest in the parts. Household Music stands as one of the composer's greatest gifts. Hickox obviously has the measure of the work. As I say, the decision to go with the string band (composer's own suggestion) disappointed me a bit, particularly since the homogeneity of the sound tends to obscure the disposition of lines and themes, but this remains a very fine performance indeed.

Copyright © 1996, Steve Schwartz