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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Serenade to Music (orchestral version, 1938, 1940) [11:19]
Five Variants of ‘Dives and Lazarus’ for strings and harps (1939) [12:04]
The Lark Ascending (1914, orch. 1920) [14:26]
Fantasia on Greensleeves (1928, 1934) [4:52]
English Folk Song Suite (1923, orch. Gordon Jacob, 1924) [10:28]
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis for string quartet and double string orchestra (1910) [16:19]
James Ehnes (violin)
Alex Mitchell, Kate Richardson (violins), Jonathan Aasgaard (viola), Thelma Handy (cello)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Manze
rec. 2017/19, The Friary, Liverpool; Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool (Lark)
ONYX 4212 [69:28]

Though published as an appendix to Andrew Manze’s complete cycle of the VW symphonies with the RLPO, this is much more important than a mere afterthought. It includes some of the most ethereal and uplifting music that I know, with a spiritual element that belies the composer’s avowed agnosticism, often described as sharing with Thomas Hardy the modifying epithet Christian agnostic.

The Serenade to Music is one of the composer’s few works that does nothing for me in its original vocal garb, but I constantly found reminiscences of other works that I adore in the orchestral version – the Oxford Elegy, for example. The rest of the programme consists of music which I love to pieces anyway, though I fail to understand why Classic FM listeners consistently prefer The Lark Ascending to the wonderful Greensleeves Fantasia and the ethereal Tallis Fantasia.

There are not many other recordings of the purely orchestral Serenade to Music, but one can be found on a two-for-one budget price release from Chandos, a 1983 recording from Vernon Handley and the London Philharmonic (CHAN241-9). Rob Barnett thought the voiceless version ‘a disorientating experience’ but that it worked ‘smoothly and touchingly’ – review. That recording also contains the Greensleeves Fantasia, from the BBC Philharmonic and Vernon Handley, but it also offers so much else as not to rival the new Onyx. In place of the beautiful Variants on ‘Dives and Lazarus’, for example, it offers the equally beautiful Flos Campi performed by Frederick Riddle (viola) and the Bournemouth Sinfonietta with Norman del Mar. If you fall in love with Dives and Lazarus, you should also hear Flos Campi and the Chandos can be obtained reasonably inexpensively – £10.50 on CD or £9.99 for a lossless download with pdf booklet, both from chandos.net.

The Lark Ascending, the Greensleeves Fantasia and the orchestrated English Folk Song Suite all receive fine performances, but Onyx have left the best work till last. If you are not moved by the Tallis Fantasia, Vaughan Williams is not for you. From a very simple but haunting tune which Thomas Tallis composed for congregational singing and included in Archbishop Parker’s psalter, VW wove a work of sheer magic into which he poured the whole essence of his music. I listened to this recording soon after completing Diane Setterfield’s enthralling first novel Once upon a River, set on the upper Thames, not far from VW’s birthplace Down Ampney, at around the time of his birth and the music took me on an even more spiritual journey than usual, back in time and place to that idyllic rural backwater with some deep and deedy under-currents. Don’t let the idyllic scene on the Onyx cover make you think that there isn’t more – much more – to this music.

My benchmark for the Tallis Fantasia and Greensleeves Fantasia remains Sir John Barbirolli’s wonderful 1962 account with the Sinfonia of London, not least because of the marvellous Elgar couplings (Warner 0851872 – 5-star review of earlier reissue), but Manze and the RLPO come very close to equalling their achievement. I think it no mere fluke that both clock in at 16:19 for the Tallis and are almost equally close for the Greensleeves. If the symphony recordings established Manze’s credentials in VW as firmly as in the earlier music with which he made his reputation, the new recording clinches it, not least in the case of the two wonderful fantasias. It’s clear in both and, indeed, throughout the whole album, that turning to VW is no mere extra box to tick on his CV (resumé for American readers) but that he really is in tune with the music.

It’s not with Barbirolli that I shall compare the Tallis Fantasia, however – that recording is beyond compare – but with Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé, whose recording of the Pastoral Symphony opens with it and closes with the Variants of Dives and Lazarus (Hallé CDHLL7540). John Quinn made that a Recording of the Month – review – as did I independently, thinking the Fantasia worthy to stand alongside Boult (Lyrita) and Andrew Davis (Warner) – review. I wrote then that the music needed to have plenty of air around it; I could have added to allow it to lift us, as it were, above an idealised English landscape, soaring as high as the ascending lark in the piece of that name. If Manze is not quite as magical, he certainly gives the music all the air that it needs; there’s very little in it, and the difference may lie in the fact that I listened to the Hallé recording in superior 24/96 sound.

The Fantasia makes an excellent introduction to the Pastoral Symphony – it matters little that the fields in that work are those of Flanders where the composer worked as an ambulance driver in WWI – and the Dives and Lazarus Variants make an excellent conclusion to that recording. I wrote that Elder fell infinitesimally short of the ideal version of that work somewhere in the back of my mind. It may be that Death’s bright angel will bring me that ideal version; it may be that only in Heaven shall I hear it (apologies to The Lost Chord). In the meantime, Elder and Manze will both serve very well.

If you already have the Hallé Pastoral Symphony, you also have very fine accounts of the two other superb works which it contains. If, on the other hand, you bought Manze’s recording of the symphony, coupled with the very different No.4, you should seriously consider adding the new Onyx release. John Quinn thought the two symphonies a fine addition to a notable series – review.

I had trouble obtaining a correct copy of one of the tracks and, in the end, missed out on reviewing that release (ONYX4161). Belatedly, though I enjoyed hearing it, Elder gets into the skin of the Pastoral rather more than Manze, and it’s disconcerting to hear the wordless vocal line in the Onyx finale given to a tenor, though that is sanctioned by the score.

To sum up. There is no exact substitute for the new Onyx release and anyone who buys it need have no regrets at all. There are other very fine recordings of the music which are well worth considering and some of these which I have mentioned also contain the best of the music recorded by Manze. I haven’t yet referred to a Chandos recording of the Tallis and Greensleeves fantasias, Dives and Lazarus and The Lark Ascending from the LPO and LSO conducted by Bryden Thompson (CHAN9775). John Quinn rediscovered that album, which also includes Norfolk Rhapsody No.1 and In the Fen Country as recently as May 2019 and thought it ‘a most attractive compilation’ - review. It’s a full-price CD, also available in mp3 (£7.99), 16- (£9.99) and 24-bit (£11.99) with pdf booklet from chandos.net and I enjoyed hearing it as a 24-bit download.

Add the Chandos twofer with the wordless Serenade to Music and the wonderful Flos Campi (above) and you have recordings of most of the music on Onyx and if you download both the Chandos offerings in lossless sound, you can have it all for less than £20.

With so many excellent recordings of this music available, I realise that I have been less than helpful to those who just want to know whether to plump for the new Onyx or to shop around. Ideally, I’d recommend both, which is all very well for reviewers who can pick and choose, but if you opt for the new recording it contains some very idiomatic and sympathetic performances of beautiful music, very well played and recorded.

With more ‘miscellaneous’ Vaughan Williams than is included here, I wonder if there might be a further volume. The Oxford Elegy, for example: the classic Willcocks recording is now download only and more expensive than when it was previously available, and the Naxos recording doesn’t quite replace it in my affection – DL News 2014/4. How about it, RLPO, Andrew Manze and Onyx?

Brian Wilson



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