Sir Thomas Allen Sings Vaughan Williams’s Songs of Travel

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Vaughan Williams, Mussorgsky: Sir Thomas Allen (baritone), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Tadaaki Otaka (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 4.10.2018. (PCG)

Sir Thomas Allen

Vaughan WilliamsFantasia on a theme of Thomas Talis; Songs of Travel

Mussorgsky (orch. Ravel) – Pictures at an Exhibition

This event was billed as the ‘BBC National Orchestra of Wales Season Opening Concert’ (there had in fact been a broadcast afternoon concert from the Hoddinott Hall last week), but the programme was quite an exercise in nostalgia. In the first place, conductor laureate Tadaaki Otaka made a welcome return to Cardiff and the orchestra where he had been principal from 1987 to 1995. Over twenty years later, he still makes a fiery impression on the podium and elicits an impassioned response from the orchestra, as he did here in Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. This was the second time in less than a year that we had heard this work at this venue: Mark Elder and the Hallé had given it an outing last November. Even so, it remains welcome, if only to remind us how well Ravel managed to realise in orchestral terms the sometimes-inelegant piano writing of the Russian original. Otaka and the BBC NOW ceded a point to Elder’s players in the use of a standard orchestral chime for the cloche in the final section (Elder had provided a real church bell) but gained in their reduction of the pauses between the individual pictures to the barest minimum which really helped to establish a sense of onward continuity. The playing of the orchestra was precise and clear, and John Cooper’s alto saxophone solo in The old castle was a model of tonal purity. Donal Bannister playing characterfully on the tenor tuba, intoned the old oxcart in Bydlo and Philippe Schartz’s trumpet chattered excitedly as Schmuyle. The orchestra generated plenty of excitement in the faster movements, and grotesquery in plenty for Gnomus and Baba Yaga.

Another element of nostalgia was provided by the appearance of Sir Thomas Allen to sing the orchestral version of Vaughan Williams’s Songs of Travel. His first appearance with the Welsh National Opera was nearly half a century ago, in 1969, but little excuse needed to be made for the passing of the years. Perhaps his voice was not quite as forcefully penetrating as it had been (and the lower notes were now more easily masked by the orchestra), and there were points where VW’s sustained long phrases were a palpable challenge to his breath control. Still, his shaping of the words was as beautifully observed as ever, and the steadiness of his tone could have been taken as an example by singers half his age.

I was perhaps more aware than before when listening to this orchestral version that the movements scored by VW himself were less heavily scored than those arranged (after the composer’s death) by Roy Douglas. The climax of Douglas’s setting of ‘Youth and love’, searingly beautiful as the melody of ‘The roadside fire’ erupts in the violins, had an almost Wagnerian force here which would have challenged any singer. In the broadcast sound in the relay (the concert was transmitted live on BBC Radio 3 and is available for a further month on the BBC iPlayer), the discreet assistance of the microphones easily overcame these occasional problems of balance. Sir Thomas’s delivery of the final song ‘I have trod the upward and the downward slope’, only found among the composer’s papers after his death, had a haunting sense of valediction. Above all, and despite any minor reservations, we must all welcome the opportunity once again to hear this singer in repertory in which he excels: his impassioned reading of ‘Lord, thou hast been our refuge’ is surely one of the most heartrendingly beautiful of all VW recordings of all time.

Before the song cycle we had been treated to more Vaughan Williams in the shape of his Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis. I have encountered this work before in this hall, and on that occasion (given by the orchestra of Welsh National Opera) the ‘second orchestra’ – the composer specified that it be placed at a distance – was removed to the back of the stage, which did not really help to separate out the strands of the music in the manner which the composer clearly intended. Here the ‘second orchestra’, a chamber group of nine players, were relegated to a side position off stage with the door open to allow visual communication to the conductor. This certainly helped to clarify the many passages where VW uses echo effects, but – while the contributions of the violins were clear enough – the sounds of the lower strings placed further back were not quite weighty enough to provide a fully satisfactory balance. That, of course, is the problem with performing in a concert hall a work that was conceived with the extensive spaces of an English cathedral in mind – in this case the acoustic of Gloucester Cathedral, some fifty miles up the road. Where the performance did benefit was in the clarity of the textures in the main body of the strings, which can so easily degenerate into an over-reverberant mush in an ecclesiastical acoustic. Perhaps the sound here might have been better served if the strings of the second orchestra had been removed to one of the upper galleries of the hall. Never mind; there was ample compensation in the playing of the BBC NOW strings, one of the glories of this orchestra, and particularly in the solo contributions of the poised Lesley Hatfield and Rebecca Jones.

In his introductory note in the booklet, which commendably included the full texts of Songs of Travel, Michael Garvey drew attention to English music as Tadaaki Otaka’s ‘particular passion’. Indeed we might have guessed this from the superb Elgar programme, including Sea Pictures, which he gave us last year. This identification with the music was clearly apparent in his interpretation of the Tallis Fantasia. He allowed the music to unfold at its own unhurried pace and never tempted to rush the composer’s ‘animando’ instructions to furnish a false sense of climax as can sometimes be the case. In the closing pages, where the solo violin and viola are accompanied by the remainder of the strings sur la touche (with the bows on the fingerboard). Otaka obtained a sense of mysterious detachment which was at once chilling and enticing. He was responsive, too, to Sir Thomas Allen’s phrasing of Stevenson’s words in Songs of Travel. And then, after the interval, the excitement he unleashed in the closing movements of Pictures at an Exhibition brought resounding cheers to the large audience. Quite right, too.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

1 thought on “Sir Thomas Allen Sings Vaughan Williams’s <i>Songs of Travel</i>”

  1. ‘Fiery’ is a strange way to describe Tadaaki Otaka, that most modest and self-effacing of conductors. He conjured fire from his orchestra when required, however.

    Sadly, Sir Thomas Allen was barely audible from my seat near the back of the hall. Maybe time is catching up with him.


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