Occasionally, even know-all critics have to eat their words, or – more elegantly put – revise their opinions in the light of later experiences, as I have found with this wonderful Chandos release of music by Ralph Vaughan Williams, containing the finest account of the vastly underrated Piano Concerto in its original version.
It may be felt that this issue, emanating from Canada, breaks novel ground in terms of recordings of this most English of composers by artists from the New World – but it does not. In fact, it has taken me back over sixty years to the early 1950s, when the premiere recordings of three of these works on LPs were made in the United States. The Oboe Concerto was made in Boston by the Zimbler Sinfonietta with Mitchell Miller (afterwards better-known for his TV programmes Sing-along-a-Mitch – though he also played in the premiere of Samuel Barber’s Capricorn Concerto in 1946 and made its first recording).
Miller’s Brunswick LP of the Vaughan Williams (coupled with Telemann) was never issued in the UK, and neither – for that matter – was the RCA recording of the Piano Concerto, in the later version for two pianos, played by Whitmore & Lowe with the Robin Hood Dell (i.e., Philadelphia) Orchestra under Vladimir Golschmann. Those two recordings remained unknown to European music-lovers, more significantly to British collectors, although the Concert Hall LP of Flos Campi (under Robert Hull) was issued in the UK in 1951 – when EMI were issuing only shellac 78s. That leaves the Serenade to Music, but there is another unique RCA LP of that masterpiece which was likewise never issued outside of the USA, conducted – remarkably – by Van Cliburn, in his only appearance on disc as a conductor (he begged RCA to permit him to conduct the work).
One mentions these (now) historic recordings to correct the long-current assumption that Vaughan Williams’s music didn’t travel, as was so often claimed, and to point out that there has long been a tradition of performing his music in the Americas (including South, but I won’t go into that). The point is that this Chandos disc continues that tradition, and demonstrates, through its musical qualities, the universality of the finest works of this great composer in performances fully the equal of any others, and recorded with a greater degree of natural fidelity than one often encounters – with a deep, firm bass which contrives to be at once clear and transparent.
These Toronto performances are consistently fine, and it is impossible to pick one above the other, for which one must praise Peter Oundjian’s deep understanding of this music. In the wonderful Oboe Concerto, Sarah Jeffrey is more than immaculate: her musicianship is very fine, more than equal to Leon Goossens and Evelyn Rothwell; it is a pleasure to encounter this enchanting work again.The sublime Serenade to Music exists in four versions, and this is (I believe) the second, and although the original (for sixteen singers) remains the most endearing, I’d willingly hear it in any version. Oundjian has four gifted soloists and a fine chorus under his command: the result is spacious, atmospheric and fastidious – and very moving. Flos Campi poses more problems than any other work here. Scored for viola, small chorus and orchestra, with a text from the Song of Solomon, the essential intimacy of the work’s expression may well reflect the composer’s attempts to translate into music the untranslatable: human love, at its deepest level, but whether RVW’s artistic attempts matched his personal desires we may never know, although he may well have thought he had succeeded. The result is one of the composer’s most intensely contemplative works, and the disturbed opening viola solo is, in its rhapsodic way, one of the most characteristic and expressive moments in the whole of Vaughan Williams’s output. The interpretative problems this unique score poses are considerable, and this is the most convincing account of this undoubtedly enigmatic music I have heard; Teng Li is a fine artist, and the recorded balance is well-nigh ideal – but it is Oundjian conducting which is so compelling.
Finally – and perhaps most remarkably of all – Louis Lortie’s account of the Piano Concerto has, frankly, astounded me. I have never thought the original version was a total success – until now. What makes this release more surprising is that recently Chandos issued an outstanding recording of the two-piano version in which Lortie is partnered by Hélène Mercier.
Whatever musical hoops through which Lortie has had to jump in mastering one of the two later piano parts as well as the original, one can only guess – but he clearly believes in this music, and this ‘solo’ recording has caused me to question my own judgement as to which is to be preferred. I never thought I would hear an account of the original Piano Concerto which would convince me as to the rightness of Vaughan Williams’s first version – but here it is.
There is no point in me saying “non confundar in aeternum” – for, with Lortie’s (and Mercier’s) performances, I have been to the point where I shall never be without either disc – and neither should any lover of Vaughan Williams’s music.