TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 10 August 2012
Ever since Vaughan Williams' late widow, Ursula, lifted the ban on performance and recording of the composer's early music, recording companies have been playing catch-up. Hyperion put out a double album of RVW's early chamber works in 2002, while Albion has recorded a number of the early songs. In 2011 Somm introduced the Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra (1896-1902), while in 2009 Dutton produced the impressive orchestral piece, Heroic Elegy and Triumphal Epilogue (1901), and has now followed this up with premiere recordings of two more early works, along with two later ones.
In listening to the Bucolic Suite (1900) one is reminded why RVW locked his early efforts away in the lumber room once he had found his mature voice. It is a pleasant enough, if rather slight, four movement work, with reminiscences of Dvorak, and Bruch (with whom he had studied briefly in 1898), but little indication of the remarkable advances evidenced in such pieces as "In the Fen Country", or the Norfolk Rhapsody No.1 of just four or five years later.
Oddly enough, the Serenade in A Minor (1898), RVW's first attempt at an orchestral canvas, shows more signs of the composer's later style. The title "Serenade" freed him from the constrictions of thematic unity between movements, and so, to the original four (Prelude, Scherzo, Intermezzo & Trio, and Finale), he subsequently added a delicious Romance, rightly marked "appassionato". It is this movement, above all, which presages the composer's mature style, although the folksy Scherzo and the lyrical Intermezzo also bear the later RVW stamp.
"Dark Pastoral" for cello and orchestra is David Matthews' realisation of the slow movement from Vaughan Williams' unfinished Cello Concerto of 1942-43, and was first performed at the Proms in 2010. The first few minutes of the piece are vintage Vaughan Williams, after which Matthews adds music of his own, assimilating it with such skill that it is impossible (for me, at least) to tell where Vaughan Williams ends and Matthews begins. The result, in any case, is ten minutes-worth of heart-rending beauty. The finale, in which the cello rises high above the orchestra like a soul (or is it a lark?) ascending is truly magical. What an addition to the repertoire!
The final piece, "Folk Songs of the Four Seasons", is Roy Douglas's 1952 orchestration of nine of the original seventeen folksongs Vaughan Williams set for the massed women's voices (3,000 of them!) of the National Federation of Women's Institutes in 1949 (the complete original version is recorded on Albion ALBCD 010). The result is a fairly rumbustious setting of some well-known (and some not so well-known) folk tunes.
With regard to the two early works on this recording, some critics still harbour reservations about releasing such "juvenilia" onto an unsuspecting public who have come to associate RVW with The Lark Ascending, the Tallis Fantasia, and visionary works like the Fourth and Sixth Symphonies. Doesn't the recording of these early pieces somehow undermine the composer's mature achievement? In my view, however, they offer a fascinating insight into his long gestation period, enabling us to understand how he arrived at his maturity in the first place. Moreover, most mature composers of the time would have been proud to be able to say they had produced music to the standard RVW had reached in his "infancy".