Songs by Vaughan Williams Enhanced by Sensitive Orchestrations

26/05/2017

Chipping Campden Festival [2] – Ravel, Vaughan Williams, Sibelius: Roderick Williams (baritone); Chipping Campden Festival Academy Orchestra / Thomas Hull (conductor), St James’ Church, Chipping Campden, 25.5.2017 (JQ)

Chipping

Ravel Le Tombeau de Couperin
Vaughan WilliamsThe House of Life (orch. Roderick Williams)
Sibelius – Symphony No.2 in D major, Op.43

The Chipping Campden Festival Academy Orchestra was established in 2008. The ensemble comprises an equal number of experienced professional orchestral players and students; the latter are either very advanced students or recent graduates. I think I’m right in saying that the student players sit side-by-side with a professional at each desk of the orchestra and in that way the young players are mentored. Better still, in August each year the students return to Chipping Campden and they in their turn act as mentors to young local players. What a super example this is of passing on experience from one generation to the next! Not long ago the Festival released a most interesting DVD about the orchestra, How to Build an Orchestra and you can find out a bit more about the ensemble by reading the MusicWeb International review of that film.

Each year, following a period of intense rehearsal, the CCFAO gives three concerts at the Festival and tonight’s concert was their second appearance in 2017. My late colleague Roger Jones has reviewed some of their past concerts but this was my first opportunity to hear them live. They were conducted by Thomas Hull, who has directed the orchestra from the outset and, as usual, the leader’s chair was occupied by his wife, the excellent Ruth Rogers.

Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin was an ideal opener in all sorts of ways. This suite is an orchestration, made in 1919, of four of the six movements from his 1917 piano suite of the same name. The music is unfailingly attractive and seemed to me to be the perfect complement to the lovely, balmy evening sunshine which tonight showed the Cotswolds and Chipping Campden at their best. Furthermore, Ravel’s winning scoring was perfect for the excellent acoustic of St James’ Church. The orchestration requires double woodwind, 2 horns, a trumpet, harp and strings. Right from the start one sensed we were in for an enjoyable performance. The light pastel sounds of Prélude fell pleasingly on the ear. I admired the agile woodwind and the way that Thomas Hull ensured that there was a good lift to the rhythms throughout the orchestra. The dotted rhythms of Forlane were nicely sprung in a sprightly rendition. In a graceful account of Menuet I admired – not for the last time this evening – the well-turned oboe solos of John Crossman. The performance was capped by a joyful reading of Rigaudon. There was plenty of brio in the outer sections while the delicate central episode was engagingly played. This was a most attractive opener to the programme.

It was a discerning piece of programming to precede the performance of Vaughan Williams’ The House of Life with Ravel’s Tombeau. For one thing VW studied fairly briefly with Ravel in 1908 – he aimed, he said, to acquire some ‘French polish’. Furthermore, both works were heard this evening as orchestral versions of music initially written for the piano. The Ravel piece was orchestrated by the composer himself whereas the orchestration of the Vaughan Williams is the work of the soloist tonight, Roderick Williams.

Vaughan Williams composed The House of Life contemporaneously with his better-known cycle, Songs of Travel. In fact, both sets of songs were premiered at the same concert in December 1904. There is an orchestral version of Songs of Travel; the composer himself orchestrated three of them and his long-time assistant, Roy Douglas subsequently orchestrated the remainder. To the best of my knowledge, though, no one has previously orchestrated The House of Life. So far as I could see, judging by the players who came onto the platform after the Ravel, Roderick Williams augmented Ravel’s orchestra with the addition of another horn, three trombones and a tuba, timpani/percussion and possibly a second trumpet. I’m afraid I can’t be more precise because though the programme book contained good notes on the other two works in this programme the note about the VW songs was disappointingly scanty in any case and was completely silent on the question of the orchestrated version we were to hear. It would have been nice to know, for instance, when the orchestration was made and whether it has been previously performed. (The Festival did not claim this as a premiere.)

Though his debut at the Festival has been delayed until this year admirers of Roderick Williams have been able to make up for lost time, as it were, because he’s made two appearances in 2017. On the previous evening he was heard in a memorable account of Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin (review). Tonight we could enjoy him in his great speciality: English song. I hope I’ll be forgiven if I don’t say a great deal about the singing per se; that’s because I feel that it’s more important on this occasion to comment on the orchestration. Williams is one of the finest exponents of English song and all the many habitual virtues of his way with this repertoire, not least his care for and understanding of the words, were on show tonight. I fancy he will have had to project his voice more than would have been the case in a piano-accompanied performance – and not just in the louder passages – but if this was the case then I noted no diminution of subtlety and nuance in his singing as a result. To prepare myself for the performance I had listened a couple of times to his fine 2004 recording of the original piano version of The House of Life (review). Tonight’s performance with orchestra seemed to me to be just as finely graded and shaded, albeit perhaps in different ways.

The House of Life comprises six settings of sonnets by the British pre-Raphaelite poet and painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). Rossetti’s collection of sonnets, published under the same title, consisted of some 100 sonnets which he wrote between 1870 and 1881. Unlike Songs of Travel, The House of Life is not a cycle. It contains Silent Noon, which is his second-best known song (after Linden Lea) but the set as a whole is not heard as often as Songs of Travel. Perhaps that may indicate that I’m not alone in thinking that Songs of Travel is the better set over all. Even so The House of Life contains songs that are not only examples of fine music but also of fine responses to poetry.

The scoring for the first song, Love-Sight, was delicate, principally featuring strings, woodwind and harp. I thought it worked well. There was a pleasing lightness to the scoring much of the time and this, plus the attentive conducting of Thomas Hull, ensured that the voice was not overpowered. The rapt violin solo at the end was a felicitous piece of scoring. I was especially interested to hear how the perennial favourite Silent Noon would sound in its new guise. The start was encouraging; it featured violas and the lower strings, clarinets, bassoons and horns and this gave a becoming warmth to the music. Indeed, warmth of sound was the prevailing feature of the accompaniment and the orchestra beautifully complemented Williams’ singing. I greatly admired the elevated way in which he sang his final phrases.

The most impressively imaginative orchestration – and the one I thought came closest of all to a VW soundworld – was in Love’s Minstrels. No doubt taking his cue from the reference in the poem to ‘thine hautboy’s rapturous tone’ Williams assigned a key role to the principal oboe which has several eloquent solo passages, some of which are completely unaccompanied. Principal oboist John Crossman was outstanding in these passages. Other aspects of the scoring caught my ear too, not least the way that the passages of throbbing quavers – so characteristic of VW – worked just as well as they do on the piano. The climatic section around the words ‘Thy mastering music…’ was especially ardent in this performance; mind you, it’s an equally impressive moment in Williams’ aforementioned CD recording.

Williams was effortlessly lyrical in Heart’s Haven and here once again I relished the sensitivity of his orchestration. Most of the songs in the set are lyrical in tone but Death in Love is a big song. Here, in the martial passages the full brass and percussion were deployed – the original is music that positively invites such treatment. Roderick Williams was proud of tone in this song and his scoring enhanced the grandeur of VW’s music. Amid all the very full scoring one rather more subtle touch caught my attention: a gentle brushing together of the cymbals on the very last chord added an unexpected but pleasing touch. In the final song, Love’s Last Gift, the warm, romantic lyricism of the vocal line was very well complemented by appropriate and colourful scoring.

I was very impressed by this orchestral version of The House of Life. I found it convincing throughout; the scoring consistently added interest but not in a way that distracted from the richly expressive vocal lines. I should very much like to hear it again. As for the performance, Roderick Williams’ expressive delivery of the vocal line gave consistent pleasure. The orchestra played the piece very well indeed; clearly they had been well prepared by Thomas Hull who proved himself to be an alert and supportive accompanist.

After the interval we heard the Second Symphony of Sibelius. St James’ Church is a distinguished building in many respects but it isn’t the largest of venues and, inevitably some compromises are necessary. Consequently the CCFAO has just two double basses and four celli. It was hard to be sure but I think there were four desks of first violins, three of seconds and two of violas. With a full complement of brass and woodwind players ranged behind them – and raised up on tiered staging – I feared the strings might be overwhelmed but such was not the case. There were one or two passages where the string parts were rather submerged but I was very surprised by how well the strings held their own.

The other feature of the performance that impressed me was its freshness. This symphony is a repertoire piece and for seasoned – or could that be ‘hardened’? – professional players it may be hard sometimes to raise one’s game for such a work. There was no trace of that here. On the contrary, the performance was full of spirit. Nothing better illustrated the point, I think, than the finale where on a number of occasions, the first of which comes right at the movement’s start, the violins have a big expansive melody to play. Every time this theme appeared the violinists collectively played their hearts out so that the tune was as ardent as Sibelius surely intended. Moreover, the players were visibly enjoying themselves as they played it. There must be something in the Chipping Campden air.

Thomas Hull controlled the performance impressively. He maintained strong rhythmic tension in the first movement and he ensured that when the climax of the movement arrived it was powerful: the lead-up to the climax was very exciting. The slow movement began well and got even better. It can seem an episodic movement but Hull maintained a strong grip, moving the music forward with purpose yet in an appropriately expansive fashion. No prisoners were taken in the scherzo which, rightly, was fast and furious. The transition to the finale was one of the few passages where I felt the strings were a bit overwhelmed but once launched the finale itself was impressive, not least in the two march-like sections where the martial theme is played with increasing intensity over a running bass figure: there was the right degree of tension here. The second of these episodes modulates into the major key for the final peroration and thus it was that Hull and his players brought the symphony home in a blaze of D major glory.

This combination of professional and student players is a marvellous idea and it clearly works in practice to judge by this excellent and most enjoyable concert.  I look forward to hearing this orchestra again in the future.

John Quinn          

For more about the Festival visit http://campdenmusicfestival.co.uk/.

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