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It is hard to imagine the discontent of a composer responsible for some of the most beautiful music ever written. However, it seems that the over-zealous self-criticism of the youthful Ralph Vaughan Williams has denied the world the pleasure of much of his early chamber music, banished to a cupboard for up to a hundred years … until now!
Vaughan Williams destroyed many of his earliest works, for which the world can only mourn the loss. Other early manuscripts, mercifully, were stored away, and following his death in 1958, donated by his widow to the British Library. Understandably, there have been many requests to investigate and perform these works over the years, and to avoid the increasing threat of piracy and unedited versions, R.V.W. Ltd and Faber Music have worked together to produce authorized editions.
Together with a number of more familiar works, there are five previously unrecorded works on this disc, three of which Gustav Holst would have been familiar with in 1903 when he wrote to his great friend: “your best—your most profound and beautiful style or 'atmosphere'—is an indescribable sort of feeling as if one was listening to very lovely lyrical poetry”.
The performances by The Nash Ensemble on this extraordinary 2-CD set secure that this treasure chest is one to cherish.
Otherwise the works which have survived from these years are chiefly songs, three of them among the best loved: Linden Lea (1901), Silent Noon (1903) and his first setting of Orpheus with his lute (1902). Silent Noon was first sung (from the manuscript) in March 1903 before being incorporated into the Dante Gabriel Rossetti cycle of six songs, The House of Life, which was first performed complete in December 1904 at the same Bechstein (now Wigmore) Hall concert as the Robert Louis Stevenson cycle Songs of Travel which had been ‘trailed’, as it were, by Whither must I wander? in 1902. These are all songs in which one can hear, though not yet fully formed, the authentic voice of Vaughan Williams, so it is evident that there was no sudden revelation of maturity, just a slow and laborious process. It should be remembered, too, that at this time Vaughan Williams was engaged from 1903 onwards in collecting hundreds of folksongs and that from 1904 to 1906 he undertook the music editorship of The New English Hymnal.
On these two CDs are five chamber works which were withdrawn by the composer and seem never to have been offered for publication in his lifetime. Why, one may wonder when one hears these works, did he banish them to a cupboard? For the answer one may look, it seems to me, to that strange but fruitful friendship with Gustav Holst. They met as students at the Royal College of Music and from the start of their friendship they played their compositions to each other and were always fearlessly candid in their criticisms. Holst, two years the younger, was from a musical family and had already had experience of freelance orchestral playing. Vaughan Williams brought to their friendship a wider knowledge of literature and of the world outside music. While Holst and his wife were on holiday in Germany in 1903, Holst wrote to Vaughan Williams from Berlin: ‘I have been trying to think where we (you and I) are and where we come in and what we ought to do … To begin with, I think we crawl along too slowly – of course it is something to get along at all and I do think our progress is genuine, but there ought to be more … Somehow we seem too comfortable – we don’t seem to strain every nerve … I think we are all right in a mild sort of way. But then mildness is the very devil. So something must happen and we must make it happen’.
Another letter followed a few days later. Holst wrote: ‘I really cannot feel concerned about your fears that all your invention has gone … You got into the same state of mind just before you wrote the Heroic Elegy, so that I look on it as a good sign and quite expect to hear from you that you have struck oil when you write again … You have never lost your invention but it has not developed enough. Your best – your most profound and beautiful style or ‘atmosphere’ – is an indescribable sort of feeling as if one was listening to very lovely lyrical poetry … I think this (what I call to myself the real RVW) is more original than you think. But when you are not in this strain, you either write ‘second class goods’ or you have a devil of a bother to write anything at all … Perhaps lessons would do you good, but it would be a surer way to try and cultivate it ‘on your own’. Would it be good, do you think, for you to rewrite as a matter of course everything you write about six months after it is finished? … You sometimes have said that you feel that ‘it is time you did something’ after all these years … I have felt the same myself often, but it is rot. We are not old enough and we have not had enough training of the right sort’.
Vaughan Williams’s replies to these letters have not survived, but it can be deduced that he was thoroughly dissatisfied with his work. The Heroic Elegy and Triumphal Epilogue for orchestra to which Holst referred was written in 1900/1 and first performed at the Royal College of Music conducted by Stanford in March 1901. It was performed in Leeds in 1905 but then withdrawn even though it had been very favourably reviewed by the critic Edwin Evans. The earliest of his orchestral works, the Serenade in A minor of 1898, was described by Stanford as a ‘most poetical and remarkable piece of work’. It had performances up to 1908 but not thereafter. Similarly the Bucolic Suite of 1900/1 survived until 1907. The scores of the Serenade and of the Suite exist, but it seems that Vaughan Williams was particularly hard on any of his orchestral music composed before his studies with Ravel. Obviously he agreed with Holst that he had not had enough training ‘of the right sort’.
Between 1897 and 1906 Vaughan Williams wrote four large-scale chamber works, none of which was published in his lifetime and none of which had a performance later than 1918. Their scores survived and were among those given to The British Library by the composer’s widow shortly after Vaughan Williams’s death in 1958. She placed an embargo on their performance but in the 1990s, in consultation with her advisers, she agreed that some of the early works could be performed. It was felt that they were of special interest because of their relevance to Vaughan Williams’s creative development, in much the same way as the early works of Richard Strauss and Britten, to name only two, have illuminated study of their work without any detriment to their mature reputation. The scores of the chamber works recorded here were scrupulously edited and prepared for performance and publication by Bernard Benoliel, former project manager for RVW Ltd, in collaboration with the staff of Faber Music.
The String Quartet in C minor was composed in the winter of 1898 and first performed at the Oxford and Cambridge Musical Club on 30 June 1904. It is more than probable that it was not heard again until a performance by students at the Royal College of Music on 15 March 2002. It is in four movements, the last being a theme and six variations with fugal finale, and the writing for the quartet is extremely accomplished. The opening Allegro is Dvorák-ish in its lyricism, though there is a darker, more brooding atmosphere towards the close. It is tempting to detect a hint of folksong in the theme of the Andantino, played by the viola, but that would be stretching hindsight too far. The movement has a wistful melancholy that carries over into the Intermezzo, a song-like episode containing some of the most virtuosic writing in the work. The theme of the Finale is ballad-like with a suggestion of eighteenth-century elegance. Modality creeps in in the ‘Adagio’ variation and there is rhythmic exhilaration in the succeeding Presto. What can perhaps be most admired in this very attractive quartet is its conciseness. It gets straight to the point and, once having made it, leaves it at that.
The Quintet in D for clarinet, horn, violin, cello and piano also dates from 1898 and had its first performance in the Queen’s (small) Hall on 5 June 1901. It is a slightly shorter work than the string quartet. If it only fitfully contains elements of the mature VW, it is a delightful work in its own right, with playful touches and more than a ration of charm. The writing for the piano is very accomplished and torpedoes the myth, much propagated by the composer himself, that he lacked technique and was clumsy. It is like anglicised Brahms with a sense of humour, notably in the Intermezzo. There is even an allusion to the slow movement of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony in the Andantino. A feature of this movement is how the third bar of the horn’s opening phrase is repeated for nineteen bars as coda before it passes to clarinet and violin to bring the movement to a quiet ending. The first modern performance was at The British Library Conference Centre on 20 February 2001.
Brahms is again the shadow looming over the three-movement Quintet in C minor for piano, violin, viola, cello and doublebass, the same instruments required for Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet. Vaughan Williams completed it in October 1903, revised it in August 1904 and again in September 1905, which indicates that he followed Holst’s advice about rewriting. The first performance was at the Aeolian Hall, London, on 14 December 1905. A performance has been traced as late as June 1918 but the axe then fell until the performance in November 1999 at the Royal College of Music. During his work on editing the score, Bernard Benoliel concluded that at one point Vaughan Williams must have performed it using a string band instead of single strings. The big Brahmsian gestures of the first movement certainly invite orchestral treatment. In the Andante, Benoliel detected the mood of the slow movement of Parry’s Fourth Symphony. The expressive romantic melody of the Andante is certainly what Parry would have called characteristic of its composer, all the more because it resembles the song Silent Noon, composed in the same year. The finale is a theme with five variations. Vaughan Williams returned to the theme fifty years later in 1954 when he used it, slightly enlarged, as the theme for the variations finale of his violin sonata. The finale of the Quintet ends quietly.
On 22 May 1904 Vaughan Williams completed a Ballade and Scherzo for string quintet. But in 1906 he revised the Ballade as a Nocturne and wrote a completely new Scherzo ‘founded on an old English folk-song’. The 1906 Nocturne and Scherzo are recorded here, with the 1904 Scherzo as an extra. The Nocturne is what Holst would have called ‘the real RVW’. In the veiled beauty of its highly chromatic harmonies we hear already in evidence the tone-poet of the slow movement of A London Symphony, while – two years before he went to Ravel – in the fleet-footed Scherzo there is already a French influence in the way the folksong ‘As I walked out’ is subtly woven into the texture, only brief snatches of the tune being heard until the penultimate page when it receives fuller treatment. The 1904 Scherzo is a vigorous march with fugal episodes. No previous performances of these works have been traced before those at the British Library Conference Centre on 20 February 2001.
Of the four other chamber works on these discs, two were published in Vaughan Williams’s lifetime and two posthumously. The Romance and Pastorale for violin and piano were probably written before the First World War although they were not published until 1923. They are dedicated to ‘D.M.L.’ – Dorothy Longman, wife of the publisher R J Longman. For many years she was a violinist in the Leith Hill Festival orchestra under VW’s conductorship. The Romance is, as one would expect, lyrical while the Pastorale is modal.
Broadcasting on ‘The Composer in Wartime’ in 1940, Vaughan Williams suggested that composers should write works for ‘combinations of all manner of instruments which might be played by people whiling away the waiting-hours of war’. He followed his own advice by composing in 1940/41 Household Music: Three Preludes on Welsh Hymn Tunes for string quartet, but he said that instead of strings there could be oboe, clarinet, flute, saxophone or cornet, or other equivalents at different pitches: bassoon, bass clarinet, recorder, B flat saxophone and euphonium. He also made an arrangement for medium-sized orchestra. The first performance, on 4 October 1941, was given in Wigmore Hall by the Blech String Quartet. The hymn tunes are ‘Crug-y-bar’, ‘St Denio’ and ‘Aberystwyth’ (eight variations on Joseph Parry’s tune). The scherzo on ‘St Denio’ is particularly engaging but the three melodies are all affectionately treated.
It has been impossible to assign a date to the Romance for viola and piano, which may have been intended for Lionel Tertis. For publication in 1962 the viola part was edited by Bernard Shore and the piano part by Eric Gritton. They gave the first performance in London on 19 January 1962. More substantial is the four-movement Suite de Ballet for flute and piano. This was found among the composer’s manuscripts after his death, complete except for some tempo and expression marks which were supplied by Roy Douglas. Although first performed at a London soirée in March 1920 by the great French flautist Louis Fleury, I believe it was composed in 1913, the year in which Vaughan Williams met Fleury at Stratford-upon-Avon and in Paris. Lasting about seven minutes, the suite points towards the bi-tonality of another pre-1914 work, the Four Hymns.
Michael Kennedy © 2002