STUART MILLSON enjoys Vaughan Williams from Oregon –
and an elegy by Herbert Howells
American conductors and orchestras have long been interested in British music. The two Leonards, Bernstein and Slatkin, both made memorable recordings of Elgar; Robert Shaw conducted Walton and Vaughan Williams in Atlanta; and this September, Marin Alsop (well known for her work with the Baltimore and Sao Paolo symphony orchestras, and for championing modern American composers) will be the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms – including in her programme the rarely-performed music of Cornishman, George Lloyd (his HMS Trinidad March).
Earlier in the year, PentaTone Classics issued an elegantly-presented super-audio CD of The Oregon Symphony Orchestra under Carlos Kalmar* playing three important English works: Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture, subtitled by the composer, ‘In London Town’; the Symphony No. 5 by Vaughan Williams; and Britten’s Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Peter Grimes. Benjamin Britten has been well served by the Endnotes column in recent months, so this review will be devoted to the Oregon Vaughan Williams – a version of the work that has intrigued me and made me listen to this newly-minted CD time and time again.
My definitive Vaughan Williams 5 has to be the majestic, deeply-felt performance by that great British music specialist, the late Vernon Handley – a conductor who must have made nearly a hundred recordings of music by composers from these islands. Handley was a pupil of Sir Adrian Boult (for many, the “high priest” of Vaughan Williams and Elgar performance) – but (for this reviewer) it is Handley and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra on a 1980s’ EMI disc who find the meaning of life in this score.
Kalmar and his Oregon players, meanwhile, have set off on their own path to RVW – understanding the work’s Englishness, but finding all the serenity and moody depths of a piece which was first performed at the Proms in 1943, conducted by the composer. Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony – a work of the dissonant 1930s, and a dissonant work of the 1930s, too – had led many to expect the successor-work to be a commentary on the devastation of war. When Vaughan Williams raised his baton on that summer evening at the Royal Albert Hall, instead of war music, the audience (which undoubtedly contained many servicemen and women enjoying a precious few hours of leave) heard horn calls from “over the hills and far away”; soft, high strings which seemed bathed in the last rays of the early-evening sun; and threads of melody – hymns or folk-songs – rising and falling in an orchestral English impressionism.
The composer had long been working on a great project, The Pilgrim’s Progress – which eventually became an opera. (Incidentally, a BBC Radio Classics recording exists of a suite which Vaughan Williams made of “pilgrim’s” themes for a wartime radio broadcast – so it is clear that musical ideas, inspired by this subject, lodged themselves in many of his works.) The Fifth can therefore be seen as part of the pilgrim’s progress – a musical counterpart, perhaps, to the film, A Canterbury Tale, which Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger released in 1944; and – once again – thousands of miles away in the Oregon of today, English esoterica has not eluded or baffled a modern overseas band! Instead, the song is sung with a definite American accent: the taut, springy tone of the Oregon S.O., with its punchy, strong-willed, trombones and trumpets (with that blast and slight rasp – a hallmark of the American brass sound) bringing Vaughan Williams into the wide-open spaces of North America.
The second movement – with its jagged, spectral shadows; its demons, gargoyles and marsh creatures (the sort you might see carved into the stone and woodwork of old East Anglian churches) – is played brilliantly, and when a high-hills, clear-skies theme suddenly appears in that complicated movement, breaking the tension, conductor Carlos Kalmar seems to have glimpsed the pilgrim’s imagined eternity and peace. Fine things also come in the third movement, the Romanza – once described as one of the high points of English romantic music. The movement’s opening is like a sigh, and Kalmar’s players treat it with reverence: it is as if they are passing a piece of stained-glass window between them, so careful and delicate is the sound.
If Vaughan Williams’s Fifth was an oasis of peace in 1943, a wiping of the brow in wartime, the essence of the unchanging landscape, a pilgrimage; then the PentaTone record label has truly revived it – or revisited it: a digital realisation – a “product” of the year 2012, recorded at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland, Oregon, and edited, mixed and mastered at Soundmirror, Boston; an age away – it seems – from the time when RVW wrote his four-movement benediction. Perhaps the last word should go Steven Kruger, whose insights make the CD booklet one of the best you could ever hope to read. He writes of the last moments of the work…
It is as if the symphony takes you lovingly by the hand to lead you home. And as you approach its doorstep, it seems that the music would slow down for a proper goodbye. But instead, with a tiny push forward, the penultimate two chords slip through your fingers – and break your heart.
The heart-breaking quality of English music can also be found in the Elegy for Solo Viola, String Quartet and String Orchestra (Op. 15) by the Gloucestershire-born composer, Herbert Howells (1892-1983), a contemporary of Vaughan Williams, and musician who shared all of RVW’s mystical love of the hills and country of the Severn and the Cotswolds. Howells has been well-served, not just by the English Music Festival, but by a wide range of conductors, including – surprisingly – the Russian, international master, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, who recorded his Missa Sabrinensis (Mass of the Severn) with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Once again, we are seeing that English music does travel – that it is both English and universal, and needs only the gentle nudge of our world-class conductors and foreign orchestras to launch it on trackless seas.
From Chandos comes a re-issue of Howells’s Elegy, conducted by the late Richard Hickox, a much-missed recording artist who was equally at home in the baroque and late-romantic repertoire. On this disc (commemorating the legacy of the conductor), the orchestra is the City of London Sinfonia, and they have been given the finest recording quality for what is a lament for the dead of the First World War – in particular, the loss of a violinist friend of Howells, Francis Purcell Warren, who perished in the mud of Europe.
The CD also includes the Concerto, Serenade and Suite for strings – reminding us of the great industry of the composer, and a body of work that should be better known.
STUART MILLSON is the QR’s Classical Music Editor
Vaughan Williams, Fifth Symphony (with Elgar and Britten). Oregon Symphony Orchestra/Carlos Kalmar. PTC 5186 471
Howells, Music for Strings. City of London Sinfonia/Richard Hickox. Chan 10780 X
*Carlos Kalmar, Music Director in Oregon, has worked extensively in Germany, serving as Chief Conductor in Hamburg. In England, he has conducted the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and has also presided over performances in Tokyo, Canada, Chicago and Boston.