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 Favourites, Ralph Vaughan Williams

Ralph Vaughan WilliamsThe music of Ralph Vaughan Williams is both quintessentially English and at the same time decidedly cosmopolitan. Influences of Ravel (with whom he studied and whose ideas on harmony he absorbed) can be heard, as well as the use of plainchant modes and English folksong, while his earlier works seem to owe a good deal to the German Romantics.

His output is broad and varied - nine symphonies, a wealth of choral music ranging from miniature motets to substantial oratorios, solo song-cycles and more besides.

In my view the two finest interpreters of Vaughan Williams' music are without doubt Vernon Handley and Richard Hickox - I have endeavoured not to let them dominate my choices too much, but in many cases there is simply no better recording that I can honestly recommend.

Symphonies & Orchestral Music - Box-Sets

Perhaps a rather unlikely set - these recordings, from Leningrad in the late 1980s, feature Gennady Rozhdestvensky at the helm of the USSR State Symphony Orchestra. I include them here as an illustration that not all the convincing accounts of Vaughan Williams are necessarily by English or British musicians, and indeed the Russians here make their case engagingly. Definitely worth a listen for a different perspective on Vaughan Williams' symphonic output.

Available Format: 6 CDs

Symphonies & Orchestral Music

Vaughan Williams' first symphony, setting poems on naval themes by Walt Whitman, followed a fashion at the time for sea-related works (Stanford, Parry, Elgar and Bridge all composing pieces in this vein). It is in fact his longest symphony and shows a maturity of style despite being begun at the relatively young age of 30. In this recording, Richard Hickox and soloists Susan Gritton and Gerald Finley lead a gripping live performance.

Available Formats: SACD, MP3, FLAC

The London Symphony is one of Vaughan Williams' most pictorial works, incorporating the chimes of Big Ben as a kind of motif for the city as well as representing the bustle of its streets and even the harmonica. Hickox and the LSO strike again in this award-winning recording, which turns back the clock on the various revisions to the symphony and presents the original 1913 version.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Vaughan Williams' reputation as a composer of music that sounds, in Peter Warlock's words, 'like a cow looking over a gate' is, of course, almost wholly undeserved. Ironically, nowhere is this more evident than in his Pastoral Symphony - the composer was at pains to point out that the fields he had in mind were not those of an idyllic England but of Flanders and France during his service in World War I. Yvonne Kenny's wordless vocalises that open and close the final movement are a particular highlight of an elegiac, wistful performance by the LSO under Bryden Thomson.

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC

Vaughan Williams' Fourth Symphony saw him take a new, and much more Modernist, approach to composition; he also turned away from the programmatic themes of the first three, the Fourth being absolute music with no external theme. Paul Daniel leads the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in a vivid account of this sometimes jarring work, complemented by the excellent viola playing of Paul Silverthorne in Flos campi.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

While it would be easy to just sit back and recommend Handley and the RLPO for everything, this performance of the Sixth Symphony by the LSO with Bryden Thomson is a worthy competitor. The uniquely chilling final movement is as icy as I've ever heard it; Vaughan Williams explicitly countered critics' speculation that this was a depiction of a post-nuclear wasteland, but when listening to the LSO's beautifully desolate rendition of it, it's impossible to avoid such bleak images.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC

An even more extensive percussion lineup than that of the Sinfonia antartica lends the Eighth an exotic sound - the composer referred to 'all the 'phones and 'spiels imaginable' - and the division of the two central movements into one for the wind alone and one for the strings adds further variety. Mark Elder provides a mature, thoughtful rendition that acknowledges the adventurous aspect of the symphony's orchestration while refraining from reducing the percussion to a mere gimmick.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

I return to the LSO under Bryden Thomson for the majestic Ninth, a work that has consistently languished in relative obscurity despite being one of Vaughan Williams' finest compositions. The orchestra is augmented by a trio of saxophones (integrated into the wind section alongside the clarinets) and a flugelhorn, which shines in some exquisite solo passages. It's perhaps not quite as accessible as some of his earlier symphonies, but it's a profound and pensive work that seems to look back over Vaughan Williams' career.

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC

A delightful disc from Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, neatly encompassing four of Vaughan Williams' most enduringly popular orchestral works. Iona Brown is a delicate soloist in the Lark, and the middle strings' sonorous tone in Dives and Lazarus is exquisite. The fantasias on Tallis' famous hymn-tune and on Greensleeves round off the collection.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC

Vaughan Williams' concertante works have never enjoyed great fame, but this recording with James Judd and the RLPO shows his Piano Concerto to be worth getting to know - and young pianist Ashley Wass is a great ambassador. Gordon Jacob's orchestral version of the English Folk Song Suite (originally for wind band) is a delight, and the Aristophanic Suite from The Wasps is full of wit and colour.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC

Choral Music

Matthew Best and the Corydon Singers have made something of a speciality of English choral music, and this four-CD box-set showcases their beautiful sound and consummate musicality. They're mostly smaller-scale works, though Dona Nobis Pacem features, and there are some less well-known items such as the Song of Thanksgiving - which in the Corydon Singers' capable hands are just as appealing as the established favourites.

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC

Sometimes heard as a full choral work, the Serenade to Music takes on its greatest beauty in its original version for sixteen soloists. Matthew Best's soloists are certainly up to the task here, with some big names in the ranks and a sound that beautifully sits between choral and soloistic singing styles. Thomas Allen is a moving and believable soloist in the Five Mystical Songs; after just a few bars of the first number, Easter, I was convinced.

Available Format: CD

The Mass in G minor is Vaughan Williams' largest-scale liturgical work - though arguably less well-known than some of the others on this disc (particularly the introit O Taste and See, composed for the Coronation in 1953). The Three Shakespeare Songs are a particular joy on this disc. Their texts may be secular but the middle number, The cloud-capp'd towers, has more than a hint of spiritual feeling about it. The choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, deliver the goods with sensitivity and nuance under Stephen Darlington.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC

Stephen Darlington's singers make a repeat appearance in this collection of less well-known choral works - the wistful Oxford Elegy, the triumphant O Clap Your Hands and Flos Campi (a suite themed around six texts from the Song of Solomon) - topped off by his grandly ceremonial setting of the hymn All people that on earth do dwell.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC

Solo Vocal Music

This disc offers an overview of Vaughan Williams' writing for the solo voice - the intimate chamber version of the Five Mystical Songs, the wistful rural song-cycle On Wenlock Edge and the exquisite Silent Noon. Soloists Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Simon Keenlyside both have ideal voices for this repertoire - the performances are deeply felt.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC

Naxos' English Song Series comes up trumps again - here Roderick Williams delivers sensitive performances of the two song-cycles Songs of Travel and The House of Life. An especial highlight for me was the penultimate number in the former, Bright is the Ring of Words - here sung brightly indeed!

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC

Chamber Music

Vaughan Williams' chamber music forms only a tiny proportion of his output, but what little there is displays his characteristic style - just listen to the elegiac opening of the Phantasy Quintet, which could easily have been lifted straight from one of the symphonies. Indeed, many of his chamber works seem to be symphonies in miniature, inhabiting the same sound-world. The Maggini Quartet offer a delightful taste of this little-known side of the composer.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC

Operas

Many decades in gestation, this opera (described by the composer as a 'Morality') eventually saw the light of day in 1951. It follows fairly closely the contours of John Bunyan's well-known extended parable about the Christian life; here Richard Hickox and the Chorus and Orchestra of Covent Garden provide the support for Gerald Finley as a profound and convincing Pilgrim.

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, FLAC

A one-act opera based on the play of the same name, Riders to the Sea is a straightforward tragedy that pits helpless humans against the remorseless sea of Galway Bay. Richard Hickox leads the Northern Sinfonia and Chorus; Ingrid Attrot is starkly compelling as Maurya, the central character who faces disaster and loss at the hands of the merciless waves.

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC

Film Music

Vaughan Williams was quite active as a composer of film music and soundtracks, and his output in this area should not be dismissed as somehow less 'worthy' than his works for the concert-hall; the film Scott of the Antarctic is perhaps his most famous achievement for the screen (and much of the music found its way into the Sinfonia antartica). Rumon Gamba and the BBC Philharmonic perform with gusto.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC

Complete Edition Box-Set