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Hyperion Records

CDA67313 - Vaughan Williams: Chamber Music
Dusk (1903) by Sir George Clausen (1852-1944)
Reproduced by kind permission of The Clausen Estate / Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Recording details: July 2001
Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Julian Millard
Release date: May 2002
Total duration: 73 minutes 32 seconds

'Pliant and sympathetic performances of deeply rewarding repertoire. This disc will surely give much pleasure' (Gramophone)

'Superb performances' (Classic FM Magazine)

'An intriguing treasure trove' (The Strad)

'First-rate, insufficiently appreciated music in excellent renderings, and good sound. Well worth your attention' (Fanfare, USA)

'Hyperion's engineering is excellent throughout, and the Nash Ensemble, who play with great sensitivity and exhibit a meticulous concern for focus, draw each distinct element into the most entertaining of music, and delightfully project an illustrious style in composition that you will want to hear time and time again' (Hi-Fi Plus)

Chamber Music
Romance: Largo  [8'06]
Scherzo: Allegro  [3'32]

This disc is for those in awe of, and in love with Ralph Vaughan Williams for his sublime work The Lark Ascending. Evoking an ambience of balmy, hazy summer afternoons spent languishing in the English countryside in a state of semi-slumber while the world drifts gently by in the breeze, this disc is the textbook antidote for clearing away the dark grey clouds so prevalent of late.

The opening work, The Lake in the Mountains for solo piano, is deliciously dreamy, as are the Six Studies in English Folk-Song for cello and piano. Vaughan Williams (himself a viola player) augmented the standard string quartet with a second viola for his Phantasy Quintet, adding further sonority and richness to music already measuring very highly on the sonorous scale. The Violin Sonata was written for Frederick Grinke, whose performances of The Lark Ascending Vaughan Williams much admired, and the String Quartet No 2 arose from his friendship with a young viola player. Echoes of Flos campi and the finale of his Fifth Symphony waft through the quartet like little coils of smoke from an early autumn bonfire, and it concludes in an atmosphere of benediction and serenity.

Heavenly performances of heavenly works, this disc is destined for a life within easy reach of the CD player.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Vaughan Williams’s chamber music has been largely overshadowed by his orchestral and choral works, which is unfortunate since within it are fine works, as heard in the collection gathered on this CD. The short piano piece The Lake in the Mountains was extracted by him from the film score for 49th Parallel, his first venture into the genre. Directed by Michael Powell, with a cast including Leslie Howard, Laurence Olivier, Raymond Massey and Eric Portman, it was first shown at the Odeon Leicester Square on 8 October 1941 and was a conspicuous success. The plot follows the attempt of six Nazis, who have been stranded in Canada after escaping from their damaged submarine, to reach the USA, at that time a neutral country. They are portrayed in unsympathetic terms and Powell wrote in his autobiography A Life in the Movies that the propaganda purpose of the film was to alarm the Americans and bring them into the war quickly.

For one scene, ‘The Lake in the Mountains’, Vaughan Williams decided to score the music for solo piano. It introduces and underpins dialogue between Howard, who portrays an idealist studying native Indian customs, and Portman, the leader of the Germans. Pastoral in character to evoke the Canadian landscape, the music also reflects the dramatic situation when the harmony suddenly veers menacingly at the moment when the Nazis arrive. Vaughan Williams revised it as a piece in its own right for Phyllis Sellick, who with her husband Cyril Smith gave the premieres of both his Double Concerto and Introduction and Fugue in 1946. It was published the following year with a dedication to her.

English folksong was crucial in the development of Vaughan Williams’s personal voice, and he incorporated folksongs into a number of works including the operas Hugh the Drover (1912–14) and Sir John in Love (1924–28), as well as the Fantasia on Christmas Carols (1912). He used them extensively too in the hymn collections that he helped edit, The English Hymnal (1906), and Songs of Praise (1925). Another work where folksong provides the basis of the musical material is the Six Studies in English Folksong for cello and piano. They were written for and dedicated to the cellist May Mukle, who gave the premiere with her sister Anne, on 4 June 1926 at the Scala Theatre, London, as part of the English Folk Dance Society Festival.

The studies are all brief and are not simply transcriptions of the folksongs used, but elaborations on them. All but the final study are in slow tempos and the songs they are based on are respectively: ‘Lovely on the Water’ (which is the same melody Vaughan Williams used in the second of his Five English Folksongs under the title ‘The Springtime of the Year’), ‘Spurn Point’, ‘Van Diemen’s Land’, ‘She borrowed some of her mother’s gold’, ‘The Lady and the Dragon’ and ‘As I walked over London Bridge’.

The Phantasy Quintet, composed in 1912, arose under the auspices of Walter Wilson Cobbett (1847–1937), a businessman and amateur musician whose dual passion was chamber music and music of the Elizabethan period. He was particularly interested in the instrumental ‘fantasy’ form (or, in his preferred spelling, ‘phantasy’) where several unrelated but varied sections formed the basis for an extended work. In 1905 he established a prize for chamber works in one movement which resulted in many compositions adopting this form by composers such as Bridge, Ireland and Howells. He also commissioned works in his favoured form, among them Vaughan Williams’s Phantasy Quintet where the composer added a second viola to the standard string quartet. The London String Quartet, led by Albert Sammons with James Lockyer as the extra violist, gave the premiere on 23 March 1914 and shared the dedication with Cobbett. It is a work of the composer’s early maturity demonstrating his indebtedness to English music of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and once again to English folksong.

Its four movements are played attacca and share a thematic idea introduced by the first viola in its arching pentatonic solo that begins the first section, Prelude. The viola’s rich but haunting sound appealed to the composer (he played the instrument himself) and it plays a prominent role both here in the quintet and in the Second String Quartet. In the Scherzo the music sweeps along in 7/4 time over a bubbling Holstian ostinato, and is marked by a rhythmic freedom associated with English madrigals. A subtle change of textures is apparent in the third section, ‘Alla Sarabanda’, with the cello absent from the texture and the other instruments muted. The finale, ‘Burlesca’, further reflects the ‘phantasy’ form by being cast in several sections within itself, starting with the reappearance of the cello in a wryly humorous solo whose quirky character is taken up by the other instruments. It develops into a rollicking dance which is interrupted by a return of the Prelude music: the dance starts up again to be stilled only right at the very end as the music finally comes full circle.

The Violin Sonata was Vaughan Williams’s last major instrumental work and was written with the playing of Frederick Grinke in mind, whose performances of The Lark Ascending he much admired. However, as Michael Kennedy, the leading authority on the composer, has observed, the desire to write a sonata for the violin was his own. It was composed during 1952, and Grinke (the dedicatee) and the pianist Michael Mullinar gave the premiere in a BBC broadcast on the composer’s 82nd birthday, 12 October 1954.

Structurally, the first movement ‘Fantasia’ combines both fantasy and sonata-form principles. Five sections are apparent, but ideas which can be labelled as first and second subjects are uppermost, principally the first one which is subject to a process of continuous elaboration as the music proceeds, rather than there being a distinct development section. The first theme is heard simultaneously in the opening bars in two guises: as a rhythmically surging figure marked by a dotted rhythm in the piano, and as a flowing theme on the violin low in its register. Overall the music seems to be struggling to overcome the sombre mood that prevails.

Allusions to the piano’s rhythmic figure continue in the second section whilst the violin offers a cantabile melody. The second main subject of the movement emerges initially on the piano as a hushed, eerie chorale over which the violin’s melody tries, but fails, to bring solace. In the fourth section the tempo quickens as the opening ideas are developed and the music rises to the movement’s climax. However, the tensions are not resolved, for in the closing section the chorale and the violin’s lyrical aspirations are juxtaposed, leaving the movement to end enigmatically.

The troubled mood of the first movement is not allayed by the Scherzo, a sardonic march marked by displaced accents, syncopations and a distinct sense of unease. It is as if the fiends that lurk in wait to beset Pilgrim in the composer’s opera based on Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress have strayed into the music. (The opera had been staged the year before he wrote the sonata.) The violin high on the G string introduces the equivalent of a trio-like section, but with a slackening of tempo, a chorale-like triple-stopped melody on the violin, and hints of the march rhythm, the movement ends once more on a question mark.

The emotional weight of the work is given to the finale, the longest movement, which is a set of six variations on a theme that Vaughan Williams took from his early (subsequently withdrawn) Piano Quintet in C minor of 1903. The theme is presented initially in solemn octaves on the piano, then taken up by the violin. Variation 1 elaborates the theme, whereas Variation 2 is constructed around a canon between violin and piano. Variation 3 begins with alternate solos for the piano and violin, the latter in triple stops, whilst the fourth starts with pianissimo piano chords over which the violin keens a poignant lament. In the fifth variation the violinist plays the theme inverted. Variation 6 is akin to a rumbustious country dance, which comes to a climax, then reintroduces the ‘Fantasia’s’ principal theme. In the concluding section, perhaps to reflect Vaughan Williams’s admiration for Grinke, a short cadenza recalls the melismas of The Lark Ascending, prior to a pianissimo final recollection of the Fantasia theme, but now transformed from minor to major key.

In the case of the String Quartet No 2 it was the specific artistry of a performer that inspired the work. It arose from Vaughan Williams’s friendship with the viola player Jean Stewart, who as a student had played in the orchestra at the annual Leith Hill Festivals which he conducted, and had become one of his ‘honorary nieces’, as his favourite younger female friends were known. She had been badgering ‘Uncle Ralph’ to write a quartet for the Menges Quartet in which she played and, unknown to her, he had begun composing one during the autumn of 1942/3. Two movements were delivered to her on her birthday in February 1943 by a mutual friend, Ursula Wood (who was later to marry the composer after the death of his first wife Adeline). With them came a note from him explaining that he was having difficulty with the scherzo, which would arrive, hopefully, in time for her next birthday. Completed in 1944 it bore the dedication ‘To Jean on her birthday’, and on her personal copy of the score Vaughan Williams wrote ‘price 1000 kisses’. It received its premiere by the Menges Quartet on the composer’s 72nd birthday, 12 October, at the National Gallery, in the renowned series of lunchtime concerts which Myra Hess and Howard Ferguson organised during World War II.

That the work was intended to have a personal connection with its dedicatee is evident since the viola is centre-stage throughout, beginning each movement, ending two, and leading as thematic material is introduced and developed. The work’s composition between the Fifth and Sixth symphonies also has a bearing on its character, since it both looks back to the former, as well as ahead to the latter, and in particular to its harmonic tensions with the juxtaposition of the keys of E minor and F minor and also the use of the interval of the augmented fourth.

Reflecting its title, ‘Prelude’, the first movement is comparatively short. It opens dramatically with the viola’s sweeping, tempestuous theme. Later, tremolos recall the gales that ‘blow the saplings double’ in the composer’s song-cycle On Wenlock Edge, and although a secondary theme is clearly identifiable it does not provide respite from the prevailing stormy mood.

The title ‘Romance’ for the second movement seems out of place since this is a bleak musical landscape, made all the more barren by the instruction to the musicians to play without vibrato. This, combined with the contrapuntal nature of the music, seems consciously to evoke the sound of the Jacobean viol consort. Further on in the movement solemn chords alternate with brief sorrow-laden commentaries from the viola, although an exultant key change to C major brings light flooding onto the musical landscape.

In the Scherzo all the instruments are muted apart from the viola, which makes its anxious, sinister triplets all the more menacing. This fragmentary theme was derived from the 49th Parallel music where it depicted the Nazis on the run. Once again the viola is prominent, for instance, where it has a bravura melody in double-stops. The absence of a contrasting trio heightens the overall tense mood.

The final movement, ‘Epilogue’, is subtitled ‘Greetings from Joan to Jean’ since its theme was intended to depict the character of St Joan in an unrealised film project of Bernard Shaw’s play of the same name. With it too comes a change of direction and character in the music, which recalls the finale of the Fifth Symphony or the last section of his suite for viola, chorus and small orchestra, Flos campi. Like them, the quartet concludes in a spirit of benediction and serenity.

Andrew Burn © 2002

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