A triumphant all-Vaughan Williams concert in North-West England
Vaughan Williams: Alison Pearce (soprano), Peter Edge (baritone), Chester Music Society Choir, Liverpool Sinfonia / Graham Jordan Ellis (conductor) Chester Cathedral, Chester. 25.3.2017. (RBa)
Vaughan Williams: The Garden of Proserpine (1899), In the Fen Country (1907), Dona nobis pacem (1936)
This well-attended all-Vaughan Williams concert held in the city birthplace of Sir Adrian Boult (1889-1983), a lifelong practical champion of RVW’s music, was a notable fixture. The imposing space of Chester Cathedral provided a venue for three secular works written by an atheist composer with a genius for laying bare the eloquently spiritual in worldly material.
The very welcome programme delved into some unusual RVW. It would have been so easy for the conductor to have given us The Lark Ascending, Dives and Lazarus, Greensleeves, Tallis, English Folk-Song Suite, Unknown Region or Serenade to Music—all lovely but heard often enough elsewhere. Instead, the first half of the concert comprised rare works written during the composer’s twenties and thirties. The Garden of Proserpine is a substantial 20-minute piece for soprano, choir and orchestra, only dusted off in recent years and still very rare in concert. In 2011 it was recorded by Albion and issued on the same disc (ALBCD012) as the quarter hour “symphonic impression” In the Fen Country, also a work that has had a life on record rather than in live concert. Boult was the first to record it (1968) and for years, rather like the kindred Norfolk Rhapsodies, that was its only foothold it retained.
The Garden of Proserpine was written when Vaughan Williams was only 27. We are assured that it was his first attempt at a large-scale work for soprano soloist, chorus and full orchestra. It is part of a small clutch of major works that are being revived now, after years when the composer and his publishers refrained from promoting them. These include Willow-Wood revived on Naxos by the RLPO and Choir in 2005 and A Cambridge Mass recorded in 2011 by Albion written at the same time as Proserpine. The Garden here received its first performance in the North West. It was inspired by the extended poem by A. C. Swinburne whose verse also drew other significant works of the English musical renaissance: Bax (symphony Spring Fire) and Bantock (choral symphony Atalanta in Calydon).
Graham Jordan Ellis, conducting with baton, led his large orchestra and choir in a work that is strong on Parry-like serenity. This is not music of jagged emotions. Its sound possesses an undulating quality where everything is resolved and the themes are rounded. Like Vaughan Williams’s tone poem The Solent (review review) it is almost Delian. With one exception, there are no prominent orchestral solos—everything is resolved into a smoothly rounded continuum of sound. The exception involves two passages for the oboe which sings out above the always equably balanced choir and orchestra. The choir registered strongly on the cathedral’s precipitously raked staging. From this full-on position their sound came out directly into the audience. On the other hand, enunciation of Swinburne’s voluptuous wording was rather diffused; things were better in the second half of the concert. I could make out very few of Swinburne’s words in this resonant space. Likewise for the fine soprano soloist Alison Pearce, whom I recall from an impressive BBC Radio 3 broadcast of excerpts from Holbrooke’s opera Bronwen. Still, the overall effect is of a hyper-romantic work that, at its climactic moments, glowers rather than shouts. The programme which set out the words of both choral pieces certainly helped.
The ‘symphonic impression’ In the Fen Country from only eight years after Proserpine showed the composer’s development into a much more impressionistic world; 1907 was, after all, the year of On Wenlock Edge. The orchestra here is ‘untrammelled’ by a choir. The writing now casts off any echoes of Parry and Stanford; it is more soloistic and poetically painted. This is not music of great surging waves of sound. Although the giant slate-grey clouds of East Anglia are suggested, this is achieved through poetic suggestion, folk-like melody and pastel shading. The music was communicated as if in a single breath rather than in a series of incidents. It was ended most touchingly with a discreet viola solo. Here is a composer who has the confidence to end a score in a quiet self-deprecatory gesture. That confidence also extends to the conductor who was happy to end Part I with such gentle closure.
After the interval came Dona nobis pacem, an invocation for peace but one that also presents a certain savagery. This was written and first performed in 1936 to mark the centenary of the Huddersfield Choral Society. It is one of Vaughan Williams’s most telling works. As soloists, Alison Pearce in good voice was joined by young baritone Peter Edge. His delivery might, as yet, lack the stentorian volume of the likes of John Shirley-Quirk, but the essentials are all in place. We will hear more of him. Ms. Pearce made hay out of the repeated shivering cries, varyingly coloured, of ‘Dona nobis pacem’. Vaughan Williams loved words—a most literate composer. Dona nobis pacem sets texts taken from the Mass, three poems by his beloved Walt Whitman (also a favourite of his friends Bliss and Holst) and a political speech by Quaker MP John Bright inveighing against the Crimean War. RVW also used sections of the Bible, not the most obvious—rather as is the case with Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. This is an overtly episodic piece but it works as a whole and has symphonic gravitas. It is packed with memorable and emotive ideas. In a work that has some of the most triumphant and loud music (“Beat, Beat Drums”, “I see a sad procession”, “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation”) the most telling moments, those that gave me a frisson are: “… the hands of the sisters Death and Night, incessantly, softly, wash again and ever again this soiled world” and ‘Lo, the moon ascending”. This was a very accomplished and moving performance with never a falter or tremble.
This is the kind of concert I would like to see repeated. Engagement with standard repertoire may be reassuring to some, but I would rather see more adventure. Let us have the occasional rest from the Greats. Why can we not have Kodaly’s Psalmus Hungaricus, Klami’s Psalmus, Franz Schmidt’s Book with seven seals, R Nathaniel Dett’s The Ordering of Moses, Rosenberg’s Symphony No. 4 Revelation of St John, The Hound of Heaven by RVW’s friend Maurice Jacobson—superb choral-orchestral work this—or Moeran’s Nocturne? Given Mr. Ellis’s adventurous approach, I will scan with high hopes future Chester Music Society seasons.