Arcadia Lost - Wigglesworth
Melba Recordings MR301131
Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending, Flos Campi, On Wenlock Edge, Britten: Sinfonia da Requiem
Sydney Symphony Orchestra
Mark Wigglesworth (conductor)
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Review by John Miller - December 19, 2011
Here is a very apt compilation of works by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten. They were each looking back, as creative artists are wont to do, to an unspoiled rural dream and simple way of life which seemed to be under threat. For Vaughan Williams this time was the 1900s just before the First World War's eruption in 1914, and for pacifist Britten, 1938 and the onset of the Second World War. Also it was the time immediately following the completion of Vaughan Williams' studies on composition and orchestration from Ravel, whose influences abound in the selected pieces here.
Mark Wigglesworth was brought up in the traditions which infuse this music, and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra play with as much atmosphere and expressiveness as any British orchestra. Vaughan William's 'Lark Ascending', inspired by a poem of this name by George Meredith, is a Romance for violin and orchestra, often used as a disc filler for a stellar violinist's concerto recordings. Here, it is the perfect curtain-raiser, setting the scene of a peaceful rusticl idyll blessed with the glorious song-fest of a sky-born lark. Michael Dauth's filigree evocation of the bird song, and his affectionate integration of the folk tune which Vaughan Williams later draws in tugs at the heart. The purity and sweetness of his topmost notes are breath-taking. We are left to ponder the fact that as mankind "develops" our open fields, larks will no longer sing over their territory. Arcadia lost indeed.
One caveat here. The incidence of quite a few coughs and some other extraneous noises during the quieter parts of 'Lark Ascending' reveals that the recording was live, with the cavernous acoustic of the Sydney Opera House tending to pick the noises up. Thankfully, though, I didn't really notice any further intrusions during the following orchestral tracks.
'Flos Campi' is Latin for "flower of the field", and thus it is a clear candidate for this programme. One of Vaughan Williams oddest creations, and very much of its time (1924-5), it is a six-part rhapsodic suite for solo viola, wordless chorus and chamber orchestra (no more than 22 strings). It also has winds, harp, celesta, cymbals, tabor and triangle, giving an exotic colouration. Each section is headed by a quotation from the Bible's Song of Solomon, notable for its intense sensuality and openly erotic poetry. Perhaps a strange subject for an English composer and compiler of 'Hymns Ancient and Modern', one might think, but we must remember that Vaughan Williams nurtured a loving sexual ménage á trois in his home for many years!
This lush and sinuously melodic piece can seem to wander aimlessly and lack sufficient contrast, but Wigglesworth has a firm hand with it, expertly pacing each section's points of tension and controlling its dynamic range. So doing he draws out ravishing and sometimes celestial sounds from Cantillation's highly professional and beautifully blended choral contribution. Roger Benedict's viola playing is in my view well up to the standard of other fine soloists on record, such as Nobuki Imai, with a rich, warm. nutty tone and imaginative expressive contouring of Vaughan Williams' sinuous lines. One is left wondering why this piece is so neglected.
Britten's 'Sinfonia da Requiem' was written for orchestra, two harps with piano and a large percussion group. It was his fulfilment of a commission from the Japanese Government to celebrate the 2,600th Anniversary of the Japanese Royal Family (the War had begun, but the Japanese were not combatants at that time). This triptych, played without a break, is a highly personal reaction to the horror and futility of war. The Japanese indignantly rejected it, citing its grimness to be unsuitable for their celebration. They were also angered by the Christian references in each movement's title (although Britten previously had this approved by them).
Wigglesworth's view of this work is surprisingly close to Britten's peerless recording with the LSO. He eschews the startling explosion at the opening of the recently issued performance by Kalmar and the Oregon Symphony (Music for a Time of War - Kalmar); dramatic though it may be, Britten only marks the drum strokes and basses as ff, not fff, as his own recording shows. Wigglesworth also brings out much more of Britten's masterly and innovative orchestration; the crucial group of piano and two harps, for example, give a particular colour to the bass line and a glint to high treble accents, whereas in Kalmar's recording they are virtually inaudible. With an implacably dragging funeral march, fiery and terror-struck 'Dies Irae' and truly heavenly(Arcadian) Peace being reached by the end of 'Requiem Aeternam', this is a Sinfonia da Requiem to be reckoned with. Sadly, however, there are no convenient track markings for each movement, even though they are played without pause.
Returning to Vaughan Williams, the recording moves to the Iwaki Auditorium near the Melbourne Arts Centre for the final Lost Arcadia piece, 'On Wenlock Edge', in its original setting for piano, string quartet and tenor. Wenlock Edge is an escarpment of limestone in the English county of Shropshire which affords views across the county's varied topography and fertile valleys adjoining the hills of the Welsh Border. The prosperity of this area in the very heart of England has produced a long history of human settlement and thus accreted tradition. It is these sources which A.E. Houseman's classic poem 'A Shropshire Lad' draws upon. Vaughan Williams set some of its verses in 1909.
Michael Kennedy's excellent notes for this disc make the comment that Houseman's poems are kin to those which attracted Schubert, and are also close to those collected in the German 'Des Knaben Wunderhorn'. Steve Davislin seems to agree, and his performances dig deep into the theme of lost love and reminiscence expressed by Houseman's poetic characters. The Hamer Quartet and pianist Benjamin Martin do more than support but provide all the sound effects and tone colours which are suggested by the poems; thus the shivering strings express the chill winter of 'On Wenlock Edge' itself, and the tolling church bell of 'Bredon Hill'. A very fine, vibrant performance all round.
At first playing, the sonics gave me some reservations, mainly the quite distanced sound of the orchestra in the huge acoustic of the Sydney Opera House, which is notoriously difficult to tame. In multichannel, the surround speakers produced a signal which sounded very distant indeed. The Stereo track sounded rather better. Pushing the volume level up considerably found the sweet spot, however, and the foggy (but appropriately atmospheric) sound cleared and focussed in multichannel mode, with much more detail and impact. The auditorium then did a very good job of allowing the big climaxes of 'Flos Campi' and 'Sinfonia da Requiem to blossom but still be contained. For the chamber music of Tracks 4-9, however, the much closer capture had to be reined back to my normal listening level.
In a digipac with the usual high-production values of Melba (appropriate photos, very good notes in three languages, biographies and the Houseman texts), this is a programme which places these compositions in a context which is perhaps more appropriate than usual. In doing so, it is both informative and very satisfying, each piece throwing light on the other. Well worth exploring if you too are looking for Arcadia.
Copyright © 2011 John Miller and HRAudio.net
Review by Graham Williams - December 19, 2011
The bulk of the music on this disc was recorded in the Sydney Opera House (1-3 October 2009) at a public concert, though nowhere in the liner notes is 'live recording' mentioned. Unfortunately the presence of an audience is all too apparent during Michael Dauth's serene performance of 'The Lark Ascending' which is marred by a few coughs and other noises from the hall. Thankfully, the next item, 'Flos Campi', is free of any unwelcome audience contribution.
Vaughan Williams described 'Flos Campi' as 'a suite for solo viola, small chorus and small orchestra' and it is one of the composer's least familiar masterpieces. The piece was written in 1925 and first performed in London, conducted by Sir Henry Wood with Lionel Tertis as the solo violist. The exquisite orchestration of this work shows Vaughan Williams at his most imaginative. Each of its six sections, that run without a break, is prefaced by a quotation in Latin from the Song of Solomon.These were chosen by the composer for their erotic content, and the music's oriental sensuousness is achieved by combination of the wordless chorus, percussion and winding viola line that gives 'Flos Campi' its mystical quality.The performance recorded here is distinguished by the outstanding viola playing of Roger Benedict and the fine contribution of the chorus – Cantillation, though the somewhat distant perspective of the recording means that some orchestral detail is lost.
This is the fifth recording of Britten's 'Sinfonia da Requiem' to reach SACD and that excellent British conductor Mark Wigglesworth directs a trenchant performance of the piece, starting with an urgent acount of the opening 'Lachrymosa'. However, the less-than-immediate sound quality blunts the impact of the opening bars, and in the work's final section, 'Requiem Aeternam', the upper strings acquire a shrill, glassy quality, while the cymbal clashes lack a convincing metallic timbre and sound papery. Each of the alternative SACD recordings provides better sound and equally involving performances, particularly the most recent by Carlos Kalmar and the Oregon Symphony Music for a Time of War - Kalmar.
One would have welcomed the provision of more than one track for each of these three works even though they are continuous, but it is pleasing to report that no applause has been retained.
The finest performance on the disc is undoubtedly that of the Song Cycle 'On Wenlock Edge'. Vaughan Williams composed this setting of six poems by AE Houseman in 1908 following his period of study with Ravel in Paris earlier that year, and the influence of the French master is clearly evident in the writing. On this SACD it is performed in its original version for tenor, piano and string quartet though Vaughan Williams did compose an orchestral accompaniment for it in 1924. Steve Davislim has already demonstrated his outstanding talent on both the operatic stage and as a lieder singer. His distinctive and plaintive sounding vocal quality is ideally suited to conveying the essence of these lovely poems. His subtly nuanced performance and firm delivery is a delight, and he receives stylish support from pianist Benjamin Martin and a fine young Australian group, the Hamer Quartet. The recording venue, the Iwaki Auditorium, Melbourne provides an intimate acoustic perfectly suited to the performance and the engineering is first-class.
Melba's digi-pack presentation is as usual most attractive. Texts are provided for 'On Wenlock Edge' and authoratative notes by Michael Kennedy make interesting reading.
Copyright © 2011 Graham Williams and HRAudio.net