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CD Review

Ralph Vaughan Williams

The Early Chamber Music

  • Piano Quintet in C minor
  • Nocturne and Scherzo
  • Suite de Ballet
  • Romance and Pastorale
  • Romance: Andantino
  • String Quartet in C minor
  • Quintet in D Major for Clarinet, Horn, Violin, Cello & Piano
  • Scherzo for String Quintet
  • 3 Preludes on Welsh Hymn Tunes (Household Music)
The Nash Ensemble
Hyperion CDA67381/2 2CDs 62:09 + 72:16
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Summary for the Busy Executive: The boy's got it!

Vaughan Williams composed very little mature instrumental chamber music of any heft: two numbered string quartets, a violin sonata, a string quintet, and a curious work for just about any combination of instruments. On the other hand, he wrote more than twice that number in the years before his study with Ravel. However, Vaughan Williams suppressed almost all of his work during this period. The output that survived begins at around 1905 (Toward the Unknown Region, eg). Up to now, I had read about pieces I thought I'd never hear.

I like best about CDs, perhaps, the opportunity they occasionally afford to tell you something about a well-known composer you didn't know. Certainly, that's the case here. Apparently, VW didn't get the chance to destroy everything and left some early manuscripts lying about, which his widow donated to, I believe, the British Museum. The Nash Ensemble (which has also recorded the Phantasy Quintet and the Violin Sonata, as well as the major vocal chamber music) has given us a rare treat. I don't claim that every one of these items is a masterpiece, but they are almost all interesting, with some quite lovely. You find yourself wondering whether the composer drove himself too hard. In any case, the set's title is inappropriate. None of this falls into the category of student work. Indeed, the composer wrote the earliest of the works here at roughly the age of 25. Furthermore, he composed some of the pieces well after 1908 (Household Music comes from World War II), the year from which most scholars date his artistic maturity.

Before that point, VW's problems come down to two, one external and one internal. Externally – that is, in the scores themselves – one can see a certain structural clunkiness, a tendency to stop and start again. He has trouble with transitions from one bit to the next. Even in his maturity, he remarked to a student that finding the tunes was never the problem (!); going from one to the other was the real work of composition. On the other hand, in the earliest of the works presented here, one hears what I can only call the "real" composer trying to get out. Some passages sound characteristic; others don't. This I'd call an internal problem. Obviously, Vaughan Williams didn't particularly want to sound like his teachers, and it took him years of effort – conscious effort – to find "his" voice. One reads letters to his friend Gustav Holst (collected in Heirs and Rebels) about his concerns to say something "characteristic."

We hear both of these problems in the 1898 string quartet in c. It typifies a young man's work. It gravitates to emotional extremes and wants to be taken very seriously indeed. One also notes a whirl of influences, some not normally associated with Vaughan Williams – Saint-Saëns and Tchaikovsky among them – as well as the usual suspects of Parry and Brahms. Saint-Saëns appears in the modesty of the scoring, Tchaikovsky in the virtuosity of the string writing that recalls the Serenade in C. (Incidentally, VW wrote an essay comparing the merits of Brahms and Tchaikovsky, used symbolically as the greatest present-day examples of particular musical tendencies. I think the essay gave best two-out-of-three to Brahms). But we also hear something else: a big nature struggling to get out. This happens from the very opening, a modal whirl that shows quite clearly that the composer even at this point had something on his teachers Parry and Stanford. Still, the fondness for the mode doesn't relate yet to English folksong, but to the music of Dvořák. The movement parades one episode after another, rather than develop an argument, unlike his first numbered string quartet of just ten years later. The slow movement keeps knocking at the door of the composer's mature melodic vein without opening it. However, you do hear a characteristic, meditative atmosphere. Nevertheless, the distance between this and something like the opening cello solo of the Christmas fantasia makes you appreciate how much the composer slogged through his personal "noise." The scherzo structurally coheres the best, but it's also the shortest movement. The finale, a theme and variations movement capped by a fugue, succeeds least. It sputters in fits and starts. Some variations don't seem to belong together. Again, the composer has work to do.

On the other hand, the quintet for clarinet, horn, violin, cello, and piano – from the same year – demonstrates complete structural assurance within the Brahms-Dvořák idiom. Even better, it's a work worthy of both of them. It consists of four movements: a vigorous opening, a Brahmsian intermezzo rather than a scherzo, a noble slow movement, and a dance-like finale. The ideas are so good and their treatment so masterful, your jaw drops. It resembles, though it surpasses, John Ireland's lovely sextet for similar forces. Dvořák himself would have been proud to own this work. One foreshadowing of the later Vaughan Williams is his penchant for the Magic Modulation, the kind of harmonic ambiguity that raises a kind of shimmer or even a slight frisson in the sound. From the get-go, you feel the composer's inspiration at the highest level. The only falling-off – only when you compare it to the other movements – occurs at the finale, where you feel some passages as the composer's "settling." Still, however good the work in its own right, it represents something artistically safe in light of the composer's development. The string quartet comes across as something radically experimental. It risks more and presses more forcefully although it doesn't achieve anything near the quality of the quintet.

The piano quintet of just five years later shows a great advance. The Brahmsian influence is melding with the composer's experimental idiom. We begin to hear the Vaughan Williams of Toward the Unknown Region and On Wenlock Edge. Now he has really surpassed his teachers. The three-movement work consists of a dramatic allegro, a slow movement, and, again, a variations finale. The very opening measures grab you and sweep you up into something Really Big. The Brahms component still appears, but less overtly. One might say that Brahms "haunts" the work, as Beethoven haunted Brahms. Furthermore, the allegro ("con fuoco") moves as one large piece. The composer has absorbed the larger lesson of Brahms without mimicking him. One finds none of the "stopping and restarting" that bedeviled the string quartet. The slow movement, labeled "Andantino," marks the earliest instance I know of Vaughan Williams' ability to suspend time. The theme adumbrates the song "Silent Noon," which comes from the following year, but mood of that classic stands out here: rapt, expectant, alive, waiting for revelation. The finale, "Fantasia (quasi variazioni)," uses a theme that the composer recycled for his violin sonata of 1954. The seamlessness of the variations impresses me. The string quartet finale – also a variation set – kept each variation distinct. In the piano quintet, the variations merge to form a powerful symphonic argument over an imposing ten minutes.

In 1904, VW wrote a Ballade and Scherzo for string quintet. Two years later, he revised the ballade and wrote an entirely new scherzo to create the Nocturne and Scherzo. The Nash Ensemble gives us the 1904 Scherzo as well as the complete revised work. If the Nocturne indicates something, the original scherzo was the superior movement, a vigorous piece moving in and out of fugue. One can guess at the composer's dissatisfactions with it, however, since it never really gels. It seems like two different works jammed together. I suspect VW tried to learn from Elgar's example here, but he doesn't bring it off. Elgar had the gift of alchemy, turning scraps of paper into powerful discourse. VW had to slog through a little more conventionally. Still, one meets with interesting stretches along the way, and the counterpoint delights. The Nocturne strikes me as the weakest piece on the whole disc, reminiscent of some of the plumier sections of the Rosetti song cycle House of Life, filled with an oleaginous chromaticism from the School of César Franck. Things brighten considerably in the new Scherzo, which weaves in the folksong "As I walked out" into a glittering texture, foreshadowing the scherzo of the London Symphony. Even before VW's Ravel studies, this shows him a composer with a strong, sure instinct for new sounds.

The Suite de Ballet of 1913, for flute and piano, shows the composer's skill as a miniaturist. In four movements, the entire suite lasts maybe six minutes. The ideas hit immediately. They curiously blend a forward and backward view of VW's work. The opening "Improvisation" recalls something like the earlier In the Fen Country as well as foreshadows the bitonal opening to Flos Campi (it flirts with bitonality without quite committing to it), while the "Gavotte" looks back to the march from The Wasps Suite and ahead to Old King Cole and, again, Flos Campi. By now, however, Vaughan Williams has thrown over the traces of Brahms, Parry, and Stanford. This little suite takes off from French Impressionism, particularly in its sense of harmonic instability and ambiguity. At any rate, the work – like the similarly-scaled Six Studies in English Folk Song – thoroughly delights, even if it doesn't leap tall buildings in a single bound.

The Romance and Pastorale violin and piano comes from 1914, the year VW went to war (at 42!). He wrote it for Dorothy Longman, a very close friend. At her death, he composed the choral masterpiece, Valiant-for-Truth. His feelings must have run very deep. This little chamber work plumbs great depths, particularly the Pastorale, in a small frame. It touches you, gives you the thrilling shiver of an unlooked-for kind word.

The Romance for viola and piano, from the same year, shows a maturing sensibility. The viola, VW's own instrument, figures prominently in the composer's output, but not necessarily as a center-stage solo. The only concerted work the composer wrote for it was the late and very odd Suite. However, most of the symphonies contain at least one stand-out passage for the instrument, and in the a-minor string quartet, the viola leads off each movement. This little Romance shows a composer capable of great things, even in a short span. It begins coolly and builds to a passionate climax. It gives the lie to those who think of Vaughan Williams as fey or "pastel." This literal throwaway puts out enough amps to fry chicken.

Household Music (or, to give its more formal title, 3 Preludes on Welsh Hymn Tunes) springs from the composer's full maturity. Reading the papers and watching newsreels of Londoners taking shelter from the Blitz in the tube stops, the composer concluded it would be nice if they could make some music to while away the time. The piece is a curious blend of idealism and practicality. On the one hand, the composer assumes that people are fleeing with their instruments. On the other, as long as you've got instruments in certain ranges, you can play the piece. A string quartet performs here. The one other performance I've heard was with string orchestra with horn (Hickox on Chandos CHAN9392). I wish the producers had gone with a diverse collection of instruments, what you might expect from a group of players who happened to turn up. The piece lies within amateur capabilities, without the composer writing down. He has given the instrumentalists some very interesting music indeed. It comes from the sound-world of the Fifth Symphony, and, indeed, none of the movements would have been out-of-place in a symphony. The composer himself orchestrated the piece for medium orchestra. The movements riff on well-known hymns: "Crug-y-bar" (Fantasia); "St. Denio" (Scherzo); "Aberystwyth" (Variations). In the first movement, the tune pokes through from the middle of the texture without ever fully revealing itself. In the second, much the same happens, but the tune does break through in the end. In the finale, the composer states the tune, tears it apart, and puts the pieces in new combinations and elaborations. Furthermore, Vaughan Williams doesn't necessarily give you the usual liturgical character of the hymns. "St. Denio," for example, sheds its earthy sturdiness, sprouts wings, and takes off. "Aberystwyth" abjures its penitential origins and becomes a benediction. All in all, a terrific piece that deserves a bigger fan base.

The Nash Ensemble plays with sensitivity, beauty, and taste. It may well have replaced the old Melos Ensemble as my favorite British chamber consort. They may lack a certain sumptuousness of tone, but they more than make up for it in vigor and clarity. They have at least two more Hyperion CDs devoted to Vaughan Williams' chamber music (instrumental and vocal), both of high quality. This, I think, is the best of the three, and it's beautifully recorded besides.

Copyright © 2007, Steve Schwartz