Davis Treks to Antarctica With Vaughan Williams

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VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 7, “Antarctica.”1 4 Last Songs (orch. Payne).2 Piano Concerto (arr. for 2 pianos by composer & J. Cooper)3 / 1Mari Eriksmoen, soprano; 2Roderick Williams, baritone; 3Hélène Mercier, Louis Lortie, pianists; 1Bergen Philharmonic Choir; 1Edvard Grieg Kor; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra; Sir Andrew Davis, conductor / Chandos CHSA 5186

Around the time that Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote his most powerful and tragic work, the Sixth Symphony, he was drawn into an epic venture by the Ealing Studios to produce a film chronicling the heroic and ultimately tragic South Pole trek of Capt. Robert Scott and four hardy explorers. The worst part for the Scott expedition was not in learning that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had beaten them to the Pole, but that they all perished during the 850-mile trek back in the dead of winter. When the last three members of the crew died on March 31, 1912, they were a mere 11 miles from the safety of their base camp.

Against the backdrop of this then-historic tragedy, Vaughan Williams responded with some of his finest and most imaginative music. Being written to enhance a film, much of it was of course pictorial, conjuring up images of Antarctic windstorms blowing sub-sub-zero snow and ice in the faces of the travelers. Vaughan Williams also enhanced his score with the use of a wordless choir and soprano soloist, singing at a bit of a distance, and these, too, found their way into the final score. One wonders at the judgment of a composer to take movie music and make a symphony out of it—surely, there would be some criticism of its very nature as background music—but Vaughan Williams was proud enough of his work to not care what more judgmental critics would think.

The end result was a 41-minute, five-movement score that could easily pass for a tone poem based on the icy south as much as a symphony, but regardless of what label you use it works magnificently. In addition, Andrew Davis lavishes the full extent of his conducting skill on this work, convincing all skeptics and leaving nothing to chance. The Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and double choir, along with soprano soloist Eriksmoen, do a truly remarkable job in creating atmosphere and sustaining it. The music itself, aside from its chilly references, is almost impossible to describe; although tonal, both its melodic and harmonic contours are quite fluid, which helps considerably in blending its five movements together as if it were one long, continuous work. The ear remains riveted as Vaughan Williams literally “sculpts” his way through the music, channeling Capt. Scott and his hardy band of explorers as if viewing and compressing the whole of their tragedy into these 41 minutes. It was quite an achievement. The final movement, titled “Epilogue,” begins with a tympani whack and seems to sum up the tragedy in quite powerful and somber tones while still paying tribute to the indomitable spirit of these men who risked their lives for such an adventure. The wordless soprano and chorus return halfway through this last movement, along with a wind machine recreating the sub-zero blasts. A fascinating work, and a terrific performance.

Following this on the CD are the composer’s Four Last Songs, heard here in an orchestral arrangement by Anthony Payne. Payne’s orchestration was commissioned by the BBC and first performed at a Proms concert in September 2013 by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston with the BBC Symphony conducted by Osmo Vänskä. Baritone Roderick Williams sings them here, and although he has a pleasant tone and fairly good diction he also has a wobble. God in heaven almighty, what is it with these modern singers and their pathetic tone production? How on earth do they graduate from conservatories, let alone get gigs, with such a loose vibrato? As for the music, it is nice, it is poetic, and it goes in one ear and out the other with surprising ease. Much better, both vocally and in terms of musical interest, is the recording by Johnston herself with Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Symphony on Albion. Johnston has a prominent vibrato, but it is a controlled vibrato like that of the late Tatiana Troyanos, and believe it or not, her interpretation of the lyrics is far more intense, the voice more sensitively shaded and colored.

Now we move on the Piano Concerto. This was composed between 1928 and 1931 and premiered by pianist Harriet Cohen with the BBC Symphony directed by Adrian Boult. The performance was a disaster since the piano part was written “for a pianist such as Busoni,” and Ms. Cohen simply couldn’t do it justice, missing several notes in the process. In 1946 the piano duo of Cyril Smith and Phyllis Sellick approached the composer with the idea of arranging it for two pianos, which he did with considerable assistance from Joseph Cooper. Vaughan Williams also inserted 27 new bars of music and completely changed the ending, but didn’t compose the new, gentler cadenza until after the premiere of this new version. The music is considerably meatier than the composer’s early, French-influenced style, a harbinger of the Fourth and Sixth Symphonies. It is both a virtuosic piece and a delightful one, brilliantly thought out and scored. Listeners familiar with the gentler Vaughan Williams of his early and late styles may be quite surprised by the music’s meatiness and cogent, almost neoclassical structure. This is truly a masterpiece, played to the hilt here by the duo of Hélène Mercier and Louis Lortie, who not only negotiate the notes with great clarity but infuse the music with an extraordinary range of color and dynamics. The second movement has an almost Eastern-sounding feel to it in the sliding chromatics of the harmony, and in the third movement, a tremendous fugue “alla tedesca,” Davis and the piano duo ramp up the excitement level to a fever pitch. The final, gentle cadenza movement almost seems an afterthought, but adds a different feel to the concerto.

All in all, a fascinating CD with two stupendous works and great performances as bookends. Well worth your consideration!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter! @Artmusiclounge

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