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Hyperion Records

CDA67839 - Vaughan Williams: Flos Campi & Suite; McEwen: Viola Concerto
Lily, close-up.
Photograph © Brian David Stevens

Recording details: January 2011
BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, Wales
Produced by Rachel Smith
Engineered by Simon Eadon & Dave Rowell
Release date: November 2011
DISCID: F011F311
Total duration: 76 minutes 24 seconds


'Lawrence Power's playing is wonderfully varied, at times delicate and poetical, at others broad, passionate and generous … Power (and Brabbins, who exercises his usual imaginative flair and masterly orchestral control in this repertoire) is at his best in the Suite of 1934. Here the very sound of the viola seems to articulate that quintissential voice of the composer … this is a 'must-have' for all lovers of Vaughan Williams and British music in general!' (Gramophone)

'Lawrence Power plays with a tone as dark as a cello, and a technique as agile as a violinist's: the ideal combination … decidedly a favourite disc of 2011' (The Observer)

'Lawrence Power is the perfect advocate for both works, with his rich, warm, sensuous tone and flamboyant virtuosity … Brabbins and the BBC NOW are in complete sympathy with his musical aims' (The Sunday Times)

'Lawrence Power's beautiful and mellow playing … [Suite for viola and small orchestra] This gorgeous and fascinatingly structured piece' (The Herald)

Vaughan Williams: Flos Campi & Suite; McEwen: Viola Concerto
Allegro moderato  [14'39]
Allegro con brio  [7'45]

Lawrence Power has established himself as the most sought-after violist of his generation and his sumptuous tone and persuasive interpretations have lead to many comparisons with the pioneering British violist Lionel Tertis. Indeed, the three works on this disc were written for Tertis, who did so much to broaden the instrument’s musical repertoire and raise its status to an accepted solo instrument.

The two Vaughan Williams works display an unabashed romanticism and pastoral elegance. Flos Campi, meaning ‘Flower of the field’, was completed in 1925 and puzzled audiences with its ambiguous form and unusual orchestration. Despite the prominent solo viola and wordless chorus, it is neither a concerto nor a choral work. The seamless viola line moves in unity with the orchestra and the chorus appears as a body of instruments, creating an effect of mesmerizing beauty and calm. The little-performed Suite for viola and small orchestra was written ten years later and contains some of the composer’s most lyrical inventions.

The lush orchestration and memorable themes in Sir John McEwen’s 1901 concerto expose this large-scale work as a neglected gem of the viola repertoire and Power’s performance is sure to set a new benchmark. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales, under the expert and unfailingly sensitive guidance of Martyn Brabbins, provides expert backing throughout.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
All three works in this programme were written for the celebrated viola virtuoso Lionel Tertis (1876–1975), an artist who dominated British viola-playing in the first half of the twentieth century, commissioning many new works, setting new standards of playing and in the process designing a new model of solo instrument. He had become sub-professor of viola at the Royal Academy of Music in 1899 and just two years later became a full professor. He was chosen by Henry Wood for the Queen’s Hall Orchestra, but initially sat on a back desk of second violins. Soon the young conductor heard him play the larger instrument and immediately appointed him principal viola. Tertis remained there until 1904, when he resigned to devote himself to solo work. (Five years later he was briefly tempted by Beecham to become principal viola in his Symphony Orchestra.)

Tertis, almost single-handedly, ran an immensely successful campaign to make the viola an acceptable solo instrument in its own right and to provide it with a repertoire. With his unprecedented virtuosity and rich tone he particularly influenced the student composers at the Royal Academy of Music in the early years of the twentieth century, including Arnold Bax, Benjamin Dale and York Bowen. Tertis toured this repertoire abroad.

However, Tertis’s first major commission was the Viola Concerto by the Scottish composer John Blackwood McEwen, and although this work did not generate a big following at the time it certainly drew attention to Tertis’s playing and to the possibilities inherent in the viola as a solo instrument. This was very much a Royal Academy of Music initiative, for McEwen had been a student there in 1893–5, and in 1898 had joined the Academy teaching staff after a period living in Scotland. In later years he succeeded Mackenzie as Principal of the RAM and he was knighted in 1931. McEwen and Tertis collaborated on promoting new music and young composers. McEwen’s Viola Concerto is dated 1 May 1901 and was first performed by Tertis at the RAM on 24 May with McEwen himself conducting, suggesting this was very much a collaborative Academy project at the time. The Concerto’s first public performance was on 12 December 1901 at Bournemouth, where Dan Godfrey chose it for the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra in a Thursday afternoon concert with Tertis as soloist.

McEwen was born in Hawick and studied music at Glasgow University before going on to the RAM in London. McEwen is remembered chiefly for his chamber music, including nineteen string quartets, of which the programmatic No 6, subtitled ‘Biscay’, remained longest in the repertoire. His orchestral overture Grey Galloway (the second of three ‘Border Ballads’) is still heard occasionally. His piano music includes some notably Debussian miniatures in the 5 Vignettes à la côte d’argent of 1913. Perhaps McEwen’s best-known work, at least by repute, was his programmatic Solway Symphony, which was composed in 1911 and was a prize-winning submission to the Carnegie UK Trust’s 1920s competition, which resulted in its being published in full score—receiving soon after, in 1923, a pioneering recording on acoustic 78s, the first British symphony to be recorded complete. Although given four performances by Dan Godfrey at Bournemouth this work was soon overshadowed by the symphonies of Vaughan Williams, Bax and others, and it quickly faded from the repertoire.

The Viola Concerto pre-dates the influence of Impressionism on British music, but was pioneering for its presentation of the viola as soloist in a substantial three-movement work. Indeed, this is a viola concerto on the largest scale. McEwen recognizes the difficulty of projecting the solo viola above the full orchestra from the start by opening with two rousing calls to attention after each of which the viola plays unaccompanied. After a third, more extended tutti the viola is launched on an ever-extending cantilena which characterizes much of McEwen’s thematic treatment of the first movement. Each time a lyrical or reflective moment is reached the viola soon aggressively drives the music on. The viola launches into a wide-spanning tune (at 2'12'') which is immediately sung by the full orchestra after which the viola plays a lyrical pendant. The strings are then muted to accompany a new idea as the viola plays a succession of minims each followed by a decoration of upward surging semiquavers (at 3'36''), a treatment that recurs later. A notable extended lyrical episode after some ten minutes eventually leads to the quiet fade-out.

The lightly scored second movement, Allegretto grazioso, with the upper strings muted throughout, charming woodwind interplay, and a lyrical trio theme for the solo viola, provides a contrast in texture and mood. This good-mannered fairy music, very much of its time, takes its cue from similar movements in Cowen’s output, music that is no longer familiar.

The solo viola introduces the bustling finale, Allegro con brio, before the orchestra takes over. The soloist plays on, supported by the orchestra, before the second subject is introduced by the woodwind, accompanied by muted tremolando strings playing very softly. This idea is soon taken up by the viola, which constantly returns to fast passagework. Eventually the viola sets in motion an accelerando leading to the thistledown closing bars, the viola’s flying semiquavers punctuated by tutti chords.

Ralph Vaughan Williams was born at Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, the son of a parson, and the grandson of the celebrated Judge Sir Edward Vaughan Williams, on his father’s side, and Josiah Wedgwood III on his mother’s. His father died when he was only three and consequently his formative years were spent with his mother’s family at Leith Hill Place near Dorking, the country home of the Wedgwoods. A string player—indeed a viola player—from an early age, he went to Charterhouse school when he was fifteen, later to the Royal College of Music, and then to Cambridge to read history. Subsequently he studied with Max Bruch and Maurice Ravel, so that, far from emerging from a narrow background, Vaughan Williams had one of the broadest-based educations of any British composer of his generation.

Vaughan Williams took many years finding the voice by which we now recognize him, his achievement only now fully realized as his early music—finished and in many ways impressive—is played again. The appearance of the Songs of Travel and the song Linden Lea in the early 1900s signalled his growing following as a composer, while his reputation was further enhanced as a consequence of his editing The English Hymnal (published in 1906). He collected his first folksong in 1903 and his first surviving orchestral score to use such tunes came the following year: the ‘symphonic impression’ In the Fen Country. Nevertheless, some years ago an American performance of his very early five-movement Serenade in A major (1898), a work pre-dating his documented collecting of folksongs, surprised many by its folksong flavour. He was not seen as a British composer of individuality and stature much before he was forty, but with the appearance of the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and A Sea Symphony in 1910, and A London Symphony in 1914, that dramatically changed.

It has often been noted that Vaughan Williams’s self-confessed agnosticism was ambivalent, masking a contemplative visionary sensibility. He possessed an intimate knowledge of the King James Bible and of five hundred years of English literature, including poets as varied as the Metaphysicals and the American Walt Whitman, and especially Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Such sources are anthologized in his many choral works, these poets providing him with a vocabulary to articulate his deeply humanitarian ethos. He drew upon two hundred years of nonconformist tradition to find unique expression in works ranging from A Sea Symphony and Five Mystical Songs to The Pilgrim’s Progress, the latter the preoccupation of a lifetime.

Vaughan Williams’s Flos Campi (‘Flower of the field’) was first performed at London’s Queen’s Hall by Lionel Tertis with the Queen’s Hall Orchestra and a choir from the RCM conducted by Sir Henry Wood, on 10 October 1925. With its unusual scoring and biblical superscriptions from the ‘Song of Songs’ (the choir only vocalize to ‘ah’) it puzzled its first audience. This is one of the most original pieces in Vaughan Williams’s entire output. Not only are the forces required unusual but at the first performance the words were printed in the programme in Latin, with that unthinking intellectual arrogance that once led educated men to append quotations in classical Greek. The audience response, that this was a religious work, appalled Vaughan Williams, who remarked: ‘The quotations gave rise to the idea that the music had an ecclesiastical basis. This was not the intention of the composer.’ In fact, he had written a love song.

These words have been set by many British composers, most frequently in a variety of church anthems. Yet Vaughan Williams must have been aware of Mackenzie’s oratorio The Rose of Sharon, by then superseded but in its day thought sensuous, and Bantock’s The Song of Songs, an opulent setting of the complete Biblical words, the first part of which Vaughan Williams heard at the 1922 Three Choirs Festival.

Flos Campi’s six movements play continuously. The music begins with a sense of longing encapsulated in the oboe’s opening rhapsody, against which—in another key—is soon heard the solo viola. This was thought very modern when the work was new. Soon the viola sings out the glowing tune which returns in the sixth movement. There follows a pastoral interlude—the second movement—in which the viola sings a wide-spanning tune soon elaborated by the oboe. The opening oboe tune reappears in the third movement, which quietly but passionately sings of the beloved. The fourth movement provides a dramatic contrast, a march-tune celebrating the King’s search for the beloved. Vaughan Williams makes it the central pivot of his setting, much as Bantock—at much greater length—makes it the dramatic fulcrum of his. There follows the most passionate section of Flos Campi, encompassing a slow dance supported by a drum rhythm, before the soloist hints at the heart-warming tune which will signal the finale. ‘Set me as a seal upon thine heart’ is celebrated by the glorious D major melody played by the soloist. The bitonal opening of the whole work dramatically tries to return, but peace and fulfilment are achieved as the viola sings of love satisfied. It is worth paying particular attention to the choral contribution as the composer has the choir creating a variety of colours: vocalizing with open mouth (‘ah’), with lips half and ‘nearly’ closed and with mouth closed. Towards the end the choir sings with gradually closing mouths to effect a fade-out.

Vaughan Williams’s Suite for viola and small orchestra was written nearly ten years later, also for Lionel Tertis, who gave the first performance with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Malcolm Sargent at the Queen’s Hall on 12 November 1934. This work consists of three ‘groups’ of pieces—respectively of three, of two and again of three movements. Individual numbers have been widely played with piano accompaniment, but the complete Suite is a rarity, which is a pity because it contains some of the composer’s most mellifluous invention.

The chief characteristic of Vaughan Williams’s Suite is the varied colour and lightness of the orchestration. The first movement is a Prelude in C major, the arpeggiated opening solo viola line surely a tribute to Bach (the opening C major Prelude of the ‘48’). It expands with a typical soaring lyrical treatment. A counter-melody first heard on the tutti violas leads to a pastoral middle section characterized by the opposition of the soloist in 9/8 and the orchestral accompaniment in 3/4. The arpeggiated music returns with a brief reminiscence of the pastoral theme serving as coda.

The simple carol tune of the second movement is reminiscent of both the ‘Land of our birth’ tune from Vaughan Williams’s A Song of Thanksgiving of 1945 and the Woodcutter’s song from The Pilgrim’s Progress. The last movement of Group 1 is the robust ‘Christmas Dance’, alternating 3/4 and 6/8. The beefy chordal treatment of the soloist and the stamping rhythms make clear this is a rural celebration, the viola taking the place of the village fiddler.

The second Group consists of only two numbers. We return to the opening tonality of C major for the ‘Ballad’, which is followed by a headlong ‘Moto perpetuo’ in C minor. The ‘Ballad’ begins in quiet mystery, with a long-spanning tune accompanied by muted strings. The intense feeling is maintained until the second half of the piece, a dancing 6/8 Allegro non troppo. The ‘Moto perpetuo’ has a galumphing country dance feel to it, the viola’s register, especially when double stopping, having a roughness that is emphasized by the changes from double to triple time. The soloist has no rest from the insistent semiquavers, and the tempo is too fast for an actual dance, the whole virtuosic invention being remarkably invigorating.

In the third Group we find a string of dance tunes. After the hurly-burly of the ‘Moto perpetuo’, the singing ‘Musette’ is a lullaby, the soloist now muted and accompanied by harp and muted lower strings, with a contrasted middle section in G major. There follows a ‘Polka mélancolique’ with a syncopated middle section. Perhaps Vaughan Williams is having his little joke here for the music is neither particularly melancholy nor distinctively a polka. It is rounded by a closing section in which, as if preparing for the finale, the viola plays a succession of short cadenzas. The Allegro molto of the ‘Galop’ finds Vaughan Williams in typical scherzando mood.

Lewis Foreman © 2011

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