If Ralph Vaughan Williams is not noted primarily as a composer for the piano, it is partly because he wrote little for the instrument, and what there is – this Somm release embraces his output for one player and two (thus excluding the with-orchestra pieces) – tends to be miniatures and arrangements of scores better-off in their original forms, and also because his true greatness lies elsewhere, not least in the Nine Symphonies and numerous other significant works of eternal value.
That being said, Mark Bebbington is a sensitive and perceptive guide to this overlooked output. He opens with a magical piece, The Lake in the Mountains, as lovely as the title suggests and ranking alongside John Ireland and Cyril Scott in its imagery and with the ravishing harmonies of Debussy and Ravel. The Bach arrangement (entitled Choral and Choral Prelude in the booklet note, but not elsewhere in Somm’s presentation) is solemnly profound and then varied, more Wilhelm Kempff than Busoni and no less affecting, while simplicity and expressive generosity inform the Hymn Tune Prelude (owing to Orlando Gibbons). The two collections, respectively a Book and a Suite, of six movements each, consist of vignettes, the longest of which is three minutes. They are attractive but have (to my ears anyway) little of Vaughan Williams’s characteristics, and tend to be exercises: a ‘Canon’ and three ‘Two-part Inventions’ are to be found in the Book, whereas the Suite is more engaging through the dance and folksy elements therein.
That’s the solo piano music accounted for. The works for two such instruments, or four hands at one, include the Fantasia on Greensleeves (originally from the opera, Sir John in Love, and then made into a concert favourite), which works well enough as a duet but you can’t beat the orchestra, no more than you can the massed strings (or the quartet or the ‘distant’ second group) for the Tallis Fantasia. That said, however redundant this two-piano version might now seem, it cannot be ignored given the composer had a hand in making it. Bebbington and Rebeca Omordia (two pianos) make a handsome job of sustaining it, and also keeping the music on the move, filling the gaps as it were, and there is no doubting they are fully tapped into the music’s emotional core.
However, there is a very important first recording included on this release – amazingly so – of what turns out to be the remarkable Introduction and Fugue. Completed in 1946 for two pianos, this large-scale and wonderful discovery, lasting here seventeen minutes, has Vaughan Williams’s fingerprints discernible through every bar, and also some likeness to the contemporaneous Sixth Symphony. In terms of rigour this is writing of absolute mastery; more than that the material is top-notch and full of deeply-felt passion; academic the title may be, but in its expression and intricacy, the music is anything but. Bebbington and Omordia do it proud and the end result is enthralling, with an orchestral power and, quite seriously, it cries out to be scored thus. Might someone? Meanwhile, played as Vaughan Williams conceived it, this ambitious piece makes the disc indispensable, and it is well-presented in terms of background and vividly recorded.