Vaughan Williams

Vaughan Williams
Sinfonia Antartica, Four Last Songs, Concerto for Two Pianos
Roderick Williams bar, Louis Lortie p, Hélène Mercier p, Bergen Philharmonic/Sir Andrew Davis
Chandos CHSA5186 (SACD)

Recently, Sir Andrew Davis and the Bergen Philharmonic produced a superb recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ final symphony, the Ninth, alongside a less generally admired performance of the ballet Job. This issue is the next in what appears to be a new series of the symphonies from these forces, in vibrant sound.

The programme consists of late works (insofar as the 1931 Piano Concerto’s reconfiguration of the keyboard part for two pianos, rearranged by the composer and pianist Joseph Cooper, dates from 1946). The solo version of the Concerto, which has had recordings, sounds cumbersome because of the heavy piano writing, whereas the two-piano arrangement enables the pianists to employ a greater variety of expression.

A fascinating performance, on a 2012 Sony release, features the duo Tal and Groethuysen with Douglas Boyd conducting the Musikkollegium Winterthur, who produce a neoclassical briskness and clarity. (After all, the Concerto includes a toccata and fugue.) Davis’s performance, with Canadian pianists Louis Lortie and Hélène Mercier, is a more grandiose affair, helped by the spacious Chandos acoustic. The balance between soloists and orchestra is equal, and the slow Romanza movement contains beautifully expressive playing.

The Four Last Songs (a cheeky title!), not originally intended as a cycle, are settings of poetry by the composer’s wife Ursula. They were orchestrated by Anthony Payne, and his version was premiered in 2013. The poetry is in the style of Yeats or Thomas Hardy. Musically they represent a return to Vaughan Williams’ early pastoral mode, sounding unlike his other music from the 1950s. Roderick Williams gives a sensitive performance. 

The main work on this disc is the Symphony No 7 (Antarctica), using music from the film Scott of the Antarctic. This evocative symphony employs many effects we have since come to associate with frozen wasteland: a wordless solo soprano voice and female chorus, a wind machine, and a variety of tuned percussion. (The percussion passages influenced the fantasy film music of Bernard Herrmann – a Vaughan Williams aficionado.) The organ also makes an appearance in the central Lento movement.

Again, the acoustic is an asset, as this is a work that requires both space and detail to make its full impact. Perhaps Davis is a little brisk in the second movement Scherzo. The filmic inspiration is evident, whereas Bernard Haitink in his older recording emphasises the symphonic structure.

Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine