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Ralph Vaughan Williams
Symphony No. 5; Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis; Serenade to Music
Robert Spano conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Chorus
SACD Hybrid
Review By Jim Tobin
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  A myth once current about English classical music had it that works such as these were not exportable from the land of their birth. The falsity of this has been shown by the fact that the music of Vaughan Williams and other British composers has many passionate devotees in America, at least where it has been performed by major orchestras and even in such a small venue as the Peninsula Music Festival in Fish Creek, Wisconsin, where I heard a fine performance in August 2007 of the Fifth Symphony.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 - 1958) wrote significant and beautiful music until the end of that long life. His early training was in the German tradition, but in a deliberate decision to get away from that he went to Paris to study with Maurice Ravel, who did not usually accept students and was not sure at first what to do with this Englishman. When Ravel suggested to Vaughan Williams that he begin by writing a minuet in the style of Mozart, the response he got was, "I did not quit my job as organist to come here in order to write a little piece in the style of Mozart!"  After that the two got along splendidly. The other way Vaughan Williams got away from Continental music styles was by collecting English folk songs and hymns. The result was that much of Vaughan Williams' music, such as these pieces, was written with modal harmonies, characteristic of the folk music of several countries, rather than the usual diatonic harmony. This is a significant part of the fascination his music has for me.

The Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, from 1910, was the first great work this composer wrote in this style, and along with Elgar's Enigma Variations and Holst's The Planets, from close to the same time, it very effectively put an end to the notion that England was "a land without music," as Mendelssohn had once declared. Its string orchestra is divided into large and small groups, with a violin solo also, and it is in the Phrygian mode. The music swells and ebbs in long melodic lines for its 16-minute duration, and is ravishingly beautiful throughout. I don't know if it is possible ever to tire of it; I have not, after many years. This performance does the score full justice. It is preceded here by Tallis’s original theme, lasting less than a minute, on which the Fantasia is based--a welcome addition to this release.

The Fifth Symphony, written in 1943, is in the usual four movements. Again, the lines are generally long and flowing. It has more in common with the composer's Pastoral Symphony than with any of the others, but careful listening affirms that it is hardly a retread of that symphony. In fact the Scherzo is reminiscent of a movement of his London Symphony. Some of the themes and atmosphere of this work derive from the composer's work on an opera of Pilgrim's Progress. Mostly serene though sometimes melancholy, and occasionally intense, the work is predominately quiet and generally without great changes of pace. There are no solo instrumental passages either, but the brass is heard to intensify the passages I referred to. Vaughan Williams dedicated the work to Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. Spano's performance is somewhat different from the Boult performance I know best, but not so much as to be jarring or unwelcome. It is very well done.

The disc concludes with the 13-minute Serenade to Music in a version with four vocal soloists, a small chorus and orchestra. It sets words by Shakespeare (those of Jessica and Lorenzo after their wedding in The Merchant of Venice). The piece was originally written for 13 soloists, and there is also a purely instrumental version, which I like. The mood is sweet and serene (unlike the mood of the play as a whole). This performance is very fine.

 

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