About this Recording
8.572304 - VAUGHAN WILLIAMS, R.: Piano Concerto / The Wasps / English Folk Song Suite / The Running Set (Wass, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Judd)

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958)
Piano Concerto in C • The Wasps • English Folk Song Suite • The Running Set


Ralph Vaughan Williams studied at the Royal College of Music, where he met his lifelong friend Gustav Holst, and at Cambridge. His teachers included Parry and Stanford and later on Ravel in Paris. From the outset of his career he determined to write music that would break away from the domination of European traditions; this desire led him to English folk-song and the music of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods from which his own style was to emerge. In 1901 the song Linden Lea first brought him to attention and in the immediate years that followed he was an assiduous collector of folksongs and the editor of The English Hymnal (1906). To these apprentice years also belong Toward the Unknown Region (1904–06), On Wenlock Edge (1908–09) and A Sea Symphony (1903–08), the first of nine symphonies that form the backbone of his achievement.

The Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910), the first expression of his mature voice, was followed by A London Symphony (1911–13) and the opera Hugh the Drover (1910–14) before World War I interrupted his career. To the interwar years belong A Pastoral Symphony (1921), which has been described as Vaughan Williams’s ‘war requiem’, the tempestuous Fourth Symphony (1931–34), the ‘masque for dancing’ Job (1927–30), the operas Sir John in Love (1924–28) and Riders to the Sea (1925–32) and choral works such as Sancta Civitas (1923–25). The spiritual Fifth Symphony (1938–43) was seemingly the definitive statement of an artist reaching the autumn of life, so that the equally individual character of the Sixth Symphony (1944–47), with its bleak, desolate Epilogue, caught critics by surprise. A commission to write music for the film Scott of the Antarctic led to the Seventh Symphony (Sinfonia antartica, 1949–52), and to these final years belong the completion, after forty years gestation, of the opera The Pilgrim’s Progress, completed in 1949, the light, often humorous Eighth Symphony (1953–56) and the visionary Ninth (1956–58).

‘Visionary’ and ‘spiritual’ are descriptions often attached to Vaughan Williams’s music, words that are apposite for a man whose personal philosophy embraced nineteenth-century free-thinking radicalism, a profound sense of the past, an agnostic stance which nevertheless valued the richness of religious thought and in particular the Anglican tradition, and the works of three writers in particular, Whitman, Blake and Bunyan.

In 1909 Vaughan Williams wrote incidental music for the Cambridge University production of Aristophanes’s The Wasps. The play is a satire on the Athenian legal system, the ‘Wasps’ of the title being those who delighted in spending hours deciding verdicts, especially since the longer they deliberated the more they were paid. The music Vaughan Williams composed for it shows how English folk-song had been fully assimilated into his voice; none of the melodies quotes traditional tunes yet they sound wholly authentic. The Overture has become a popular concert item independent from the rest of the suite; it opens with suitably waspish buzzing leading to rumbustious fast music to set the scene for the comedy to follow. Contrast is found in the middle with a serene melody, which in the play is associated with the reconciliation between Anticleon and his father Procleon. It is utterly English in spirit and one of the composer’s loveliest inventions. The first Entr’acte with its puckish, rather mischievous theme, is followed by the droll March Past of the Kitchen Utensils which accompanied a scene when a pot, pestle and water-jug solemnly bear testimony to the worthy qualities of a dog accused of theft. The second Entr’acte has a noble quality, whilst the Final Tableau is a romp, in which the three sons of the poet Carcinnus, a rival to Aristophanes, are forced to dance and the main theme of the Overture returns to crown the proceedings.

The Piano Concerto was conceived for the formidable skills of the British pianist Harriet Cohen, its first two movements being sketched in 1926 and the Finale added in 1930. Cohen with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Adrian Boult, gave the première in 1933. It was only a partial success; many of the conservative audiences of the time found the work too dissonant and disliked the percussive nature of much of the piano-writing. Critics also commented that the solo piano part seemed swamped by the orchestration; it had its admirers though, Bartók among them. In consequence the composer recast the work in 1946 for two pianos in collaboration with Joseph Cooper. In recent years pianists have begun to opt again for the original version, as recorded here. Cohen was the mistress of Arnold Bax, Vaughan Williams’s friend and fellow composer, and in the third movement of the original version he had included a quotation from Bax’s Third Symphony to symbolize the friendship between the three of them. After the first performance, however, Vaughan Williams came to the conclusion that the quotation did not work and cut it out. When he came to revise the work for two pianos he also changed the ending of the work to conclude quietly and this revision applies also to the published solo piano version.

A major influence on the work were the piano transcriptions of Bach by the composer/pianist Ferruccio Busoni (1866–1924), as can he heard in the exuberant opening Toccata in which the main thematic ideas appear in quick succession starting with an emphatic rising theme on the strings, set against virtuosic piano figuration. The percussive chords that the soloist pummels out are important too, as is a jaunty phrase passed initially from woodwind, to piano, then strings. An elated folk-song-like phase introduced by flutes, clarinets and violas forms the main contrasting idea. The Toccata is linked to the Romanza by a short cadenza in which the bar lines are omitted allowing the soloist to play without rhythmic constraints. This sense of freedom characterizes the first part of the movement in which the music hovers around a single note played over florid arpeggios. Its heart, however, is a tender rocking reverie of melting loveliness, which includes a rapt theme descending stepwise, heard first on the woodwind. Surely this movement is one of the composer’s finest inspirations? Towards the end, the oboe’s downward phrase, echoed by solo viola, hints at the principal theme for the finale, Fuga cromatica con finale alla tedesca. This opens with a crisp explosion of trombones and tuba outlining the fugue subject (or theme), which is introduced in full by the soloist. Having run its dynamic course, the fugue reaches a powerful climax as fragments of its subject, some extended, some shortened, pile up frenetically upon each other. A fulsome cadenza follows, providing the bridge to the barn-storming dance of the Finale alla tedesca (a term for German dances since the fifteenth century). The music culminates in a cascading descent and a gong stroke to usher in another cadenza. The mood turns reflective once more as the theme of the Romanza is recalled until finally the principal theme of the Finale alla tedesca is softly played by pizzicato strings against the soothing chords of the piano.

The English Folk Song Suite (1923) came about through the efforts of John Somerville, Commandant of the Royal Military School of Music who, during the 1920s, commissioned several leading composers to write works for military band. Gordon Jacob transcribed the work for orchestra in 1924. Its three movements are all based on well-known folk-songs which are skilfully varied and combined with evident relish on the composer’s part.

According to Vaughan Williams’s preface on the score, The Running Set is ‘a dance of British origin still performed in the remoter parts of the United States’. Founded, he commented, ‘on traditional tunes’, the work was composed in 1933 for a massed performance of the dance for the annual festival of the English Folk Dance Society the following year. As the dance had lost its original tune, Vaughan Williams combined several of the folk-songs associated with the dance into one continuous movement. The tunes he used to form this ebullient sequence are Barrack Hill, The Blackthorn Stick, Irish Reel and Cock o’ the North. Listening to it, one suspects it must be pretty exhausting to dance to!

Andrew Burn

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