Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Music for two pianos
Symphony No. 5 in D minor (arr. Michael Mullinar; revised by Vaughan Williams; edited by Anthony Goldstone) [34:35] The Running Set (arr. Vally Lasker and Helen Bidder) [6:52] Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (arr. Maurice Jacobson) [13:17]
Goldstone and Clemmow (two pianos)
rec. 2016, St John the Baptist Church, Alkborough, North Lincolnshire ALBION RECORDS ALBCD031 [55:26]
This isn’t the first time that Albion Records have released recordings of piano arrangements of orchestral scores by Vaughan Williams. One earlier release included a two-piano arrangement by Michael Mullinar of the Sixth Symphony and Constant Lambert’s arrangement for piano, four hands, of the Overture to The Wasps. On that disc the pianists were Alan Rowlands and Adrian Sims (ALBCD011). Another issue included Iain Burnside playing Vally Lasker’s 1930 piano version of Job – A Masque for Dancing, which I understand was made for the purpose of dancers’ rehearsals and which Oxford University Press deemed worthy of publication in its own right in the following year (ALBCD015). I’ve not heard either of those discs.
Michael Mullinar (1895-1973) was a friend and close associate of Vaughan Williams from his own student days at the Royal College of Music in the 1920s. He was often a participant in the ‘play through’ of a new score when VW would unveil his latest work to a select group of friends. Mullinar received the signal honour of the dedication of the Sixth Symphony – he went on to make arrangements of that score for both solo piano and for two pianos. His arrangement of the Fifth was never published and it’s uncertain exactly when he made it. However, it’s clear from the surviving manuscript that the composer himself took an active interest in the transcription – the manuscript shows evidence of corrections that he made. For this recording Anthony Goldstone has edited what seems to have been a somewhat disorganised manuscript. The fact that the manuscript required quite a bit of work on his part causes me to wonder if the transcription was ever played in public.
Before I go any further I should say that the playing on this disc is very fine indeed. The husband and wife team of Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow play with tremendous skill, no little finesse and an evident understanding of and empathy with the music. Such reservations as I have about this enterprise have nothing at all to do with the quality of their playing.
While I was listening to this disc I thought more than once of Ravel, which is fitting given that VW was for a brief period a pupil of the French master. Works such as Le Tombeau de Couperin and Ma mère l'Oye, though vastly different as music, came to mind but there’s a crucial difference: those scores originated as piano works – and, indeed, still form part of Ravel’s piano literature – which were subsequently orchestrated by their composer. These VW pieces originated as orchestral scores and were subsequently arranged by other hands for piano, though clearly with the composer’s blessing.
What struck me each time I listened to the transcription of the Fifth Symphony was the clarity of texture that’s achieved. That’s not to suggest that the orchestral scoring lacks clarity; VW achieves a different kind of clarity. In this piano version a great deal of subsidiary material can be heard with greater clarity than usual. I wonder though if this clarity comes at a price. Despite the sensitivity with which the pianists play there’s a problem in that the music is being played by two equal instruments. Furthermore, these instruments are percussive in nature. So the half-lights that we glimpse in VW’s orchestral version are more in the spotlight than is perhaps desirable. The second movement offers a case in point. The playing of the two pianists is light and precise and the rhythms emerge with great clarity. All that’s very much to be welcomed. The almost constant running accompaniment figurations can be heard distinctly (for example from about 1:30) and on one level that’s very interesting. However, are the accompanying figurations too clearly heard? This material, after all, is background material – undercurrents, if you will - and that’s how it comes across in the orchestral score. Here, though, the music is being played by two pianos which are equally-weighted voices.
The magical chords that open the Romanza are beautifully weighted – and, arguably, even more so when we hear the chords again at 1:54. It’s something of a disappointment, though, that the Pilgrim’s Progress theme inevitably sounds a bit prosaic on a piano instead of a cor anglais. I admired the pianism as I listened but how I missed the colours and contrasts of the orchestral score. Here and elsewhere the effect is somewhat akin to viewing a black-and-white reproduction of a colour photograph. Similar thoughts arise from listening to the finale though I must record that Goldstone and Clemmow deliver the seraphic ending most beautifully.
The problem that I’ve had with this transcription is that I know the orchestral score so well. When the transcription was made – almost certainly when the symphony was newly-composed – performances would have been rare to say nothing of recordings. People who played or listened to this transcription might well have been completely unfamiliar with the orchestral score. What a revelation it would have been to hear the full score later, the orchestral colourings coming as a glorious surprise. Nowadays we have so many opportunities to hear the full score and I’m not sure that the reverse process – moving from orchestral to piano versions – works; one almost hears the transcription as a contraction.
The transcription of Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis was made by the composer and pianist, Maurice Jacobson (1896-1976) who was another of VW’s longstanding friends and collaborators. This transcription was published in 1947, perhaps to aid study of the piece. I’m afraid it just doesn’t work for me at all despite the excellent advocacy of Goldstone and Clemmow. There are two great problems. One is that pianos, which are percussive instruments, can’t begin to do justice to the timbre of stringed instruments. More damagingly, the transcription doesn’t convey any sense of space. You don’t get any feeling at all for the separation between the main body of strings, the solo quartet and, especially, the subsidiary string orchestra. So, for example, when the subsidiary orchestra has a telling entry at 3:35 there’s no real contrast, nor is there when the solo quartet contributions begin at 5:24. It would be too harsh to say that the transcription presents the music without the magic but certainly VW’s carefully calculated spatial effects go for nothing.
The transcription of The Running Set was made by Vally Lasker and Helen Bidder. I learned from the notes that they were teachers at St. Paul’s Girls’ School and colleagues there of Holst. They were frequent collaborators with both Holst and VW. The Running Set isn’t great Vaughan Williams but it’s a jolly little romp which incorporates four folk-song tunes. The transcription gets a sparkling performance here.
I’m sorry that I can’t be more enthusiastic about the contents of this CD though I can’t emphasise strongly enough that the performances themselves are excellent. The transcriptions allow us to hear the scores in a different light, it’s true. They probably have some value as an aid to studying the music and I can’t deny that in listening to the symphony in particular I’ve heard a good deal of interesting detail. I’m not sure, however, if I’ve learned much new about the scores. I’d sum these transcriptions up as very interesting but also rather frustrating. I do recognise, however, that other lovers of Vaughan Williams’ music may react rather differently to hearing these pieces in this unfamiliar guise and it’s hard to imagine that the transcriptions could be better played than is the case here.
The recorded sound is very good indeed and the notes, which take the form of an essay about the works by John Francis and a shorter note by Anthony Goldstone, are valuable.
As I was putting the finishing touches to this review the death of Anthony Goldstone was announced. He died on 2 January 2017, aged 72.
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