Ralph Vaughan Williams: Discoveries

Ralph Vaughan Williams is one of my favorite composers. For me, then, Discoveries is a delight — and an aptly named one. The works on this album all emerge from the obscure corners of Vaughan Williams’ catalog.

Though there’s very little “pure” RVW here (almost every work is either an arrangement or orchestration), it all rings true. The origins of the works on Discoveries are fascinating, and much too convoluted to recount here — be sure to read the liner notes if you purchase the album.

The Three Nocturnes date from RVW’s orchestration studies with Ravel, and are settings of one of his favorite poets, Walt Whitman. The rich, rounded tones of Roderick Williams’ baritone fit beautifully in the transparent framework of the orchestrations. I was reminded of Flos Campi or Pilgrim’s Progress as I listened.

The Four Last Songs (1954) were settings of his wife’s Ursula’s poetry. Though parts of two uncompleted song cycles for voice and piano, Anthony Payne (who also orchestrated the Nocturnes) masterfully turned them into a grouping for mezzo-soprano and orchestra that hangs together beautifully. Jennifer Johnston’s warm, creamy voice gives the songs a poignant, bittersweet quality appropriate to these autumnal works.

Adrian Williams’ arrangement of music from RVW’s 1927 opera The Poisoned Kiss does the world of music a service. This symphonic rhapsody, entitled A Road All Paved with Stars is 27 minutes of lush, lyrical RVW at his pastoral finest. The Poisoned Kiss is seldom performed — this rhapsody could well rescue the music from complete obscurity.

Also included is a suite from Stricken Peninsula, a war department film. With the score missing, Philip Lane had to reconstruct the music by transcribing it from the film. As expected, the music’s somewhat patriotic and inspirational in tone, but not over the top. It’s simply Vaughan Williams.

An ideal lineup of forces was assembled for this recording. The BBC Symphony Orchestra and Martyn Brabbins are old hands at interpreting the music of their native son. If you’re an admirer of RVW, or even English music in general, this album is worth getting.

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Discoveries
Three Nocturnes for Baritone and Orchestra (1 & III orchestrated by Anthony Payne); A Road All Paved with Stars – A Symphonic Rhapsody from the Opera “The Poisoned Kiss” (arranged by Adrian Williams); Stricken Peninsula – An Italian Rhapsody for Orchestra (reconstructed from the film by Philip Lane); Four Last Songs for Mezzo-Soprano and Orchestra (orchestrated by Anthony Payne)
Roderick Williams, baritone; Jennifer Johnston, mezzo-soprano; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Martyn Brabbins, conductor
Albion Records ALBCD028

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