Saturday, February 18, 2017

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Yesterday and Today

In the late Nineties Chandos launched a project with conductor Richard Hickox to record the complete symphonies of Ralph Vaughan Williams. This effort was distinguished by a recording of the original 1913 version of “A London Symphony,” which won two Gramophone Awards in 2001, both Record of the Year and Best Orchestral Disc. Sadly, Hickox died of a dissecting thoracic aneurysm on November 23, 2008. This cut short not only his project with Chandos but also plans to conduct a new production of Vaughan Williams’ one-act opera “Riders to the Sea” to be performed by the English National Opera.

Chandos subsequently recruited Andrew Davis to continue the symphony project, and yesterday saw the release of a recording of Vaughan Williams’ ninth symphony. With sad irony Vaughan Williams himself died on August 26, 1958, only four months after this symphony received its first performance. All of Hickox’ recordings involved coupling one or two of Vaughan Williams’ symphonies with one or more of his shorter orchestral compositions, the only exception being “A London Symphony,” which is preceded by George Butterworth’s “The Banks of Green Willow.” On the new Davis recording the ninth symphony is preceded by “Job: A Masque for Dancing,” a ballet choreographed by Ninette de Valois in 1931 for the Vic-Wells Ballet (which is now the Royal Ballet).

This coupling is somewhat peculiar. While the ninth symphony was well received, it also involved some adventurous modernism, particularly in the way in which it calls attention to the three saxophones in the instrumentation. “Job,” on the other hand, was called a “masque,” rather than a “ballet,” because Vaughan Williams wished to endow it with retrospective connotations. This was emphasized in his labels for several of the scenes, which included the “technical terms” sarabande, minuet, pavane, and galliard. Mind you, the casual listener deprived of the list of the scene titles would be hard pressed to identify any sense of “ancient” forms in this score; and the choreography itself seems to have had less to do with the Old Testament and more to do with the famous illustrations created by William Blake.

To be fair, however, it is unclear how many listeners are now equipped to listen to Vaughan Williams’ music with any sense of context, not only here in the United States but possibly even in the United Kingdom. (Davis’ recording was made with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra.) Historical distance does not seem to have worked in Vaughan Williams’ favor. Back in my student days it was pretty much taken for granted that music lovers would be familiar with the “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis,” “The Lark Ascending,” and at least a few of his symphonies. Furthermore, record collectors tended to know about his close relationship with the conductor Adrian Boult; and one expected to see Boult recordings whenever Vaughan Williams was concerned. (By way of disclaimer, my own CD collection includes the eight-CD box of Boult conducting all of the symphonies and a generous, but not complete, supply of other orchestral works.)

This may explain why my reaction to Davis was less than enthusiastic. For better or worse, listening to Vaughan Williams tends to remind me of my youth; and those Boult recordings reinforce those memories. Davis clearly conducts the two selections on this album with meaningful expressiveness, but that meaning seems to be grounded in a respect for historical distance.

The result is that there is little sense of an underlying drive of spontaneity. Its a bit like the difference between the pedants who bury themselves in decoding early systems of notation and the music-makers who view that notation the same way jazz players view their “charts,” as a point of departure for in-the-moment jamming. I would not argue that Davis and Boult follow that analogy precisely, but there is a sense of remove in this new recording that does not align well with the ways in which Vaughan Williams’ music established itself in my personal memories.

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