CHRISTOPHER WRIGHT: Momentum; Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, ‘And then there was silence’ – Fenella Humphreys, violin/Christopher Watson, tenor/Royal Scottish Nat. Orch./Martin Yates – RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 5 in D major (new edition ed. By Peter Horton, 2008) – Bournemouth Sym. Orch./Martin Yates – Dutton Epoch CDLX 7286 (Distr. by Harmonia mundi), 78:29 ****:
English composer Christopher Wright lost his wife to cancer in 2009. According to booklet notes, Wright took this very hard and his friends feared that this event would stifle his compulsion to write music. Rather, Wright wrote this substantial, haunting and deeply personal violin concerto in memory of his wife, Ruth, who was a violinist. This three-movement work is moving and beautiful and – while not without some pathos – gives a peaceful, loving impression that leaves quite an impact. Each of the three movements is given a subtitle (the whole concerto being dedicated “In Memory of Ruth”) that evokes the mood and intent quite well: correspondingly, “Beauty”, “Joy” and “Fading Away”. The last movement carries a particular emotional weight; in that the violin is joined by a tenor soloist, singing the first stanza of the poem, “Echo” by Christina Rosetti. There is a clear depth of expression in this piece and some orchestral techniques that carry some meaning to the composer including some references to the orchestral music that Ruth loved to play, the open chordal writing that sounds simultaneously hopeful and empty and the variance in tempo that evokes stages of the lives of Christopher and Ruth.
Wright seems like an interesting person, serving as a school teacher for many years, but turning to composition full time in 1993. He has also been a professional trombonist and choral conductor throughout his life. He studied composition principally with Richard Arnell and later with Stanley Glasser, Alan Bullard & Nicholas Sackman. The concert overture, Momentum, which opens this collection, is a buoyant upbeat work that evokes Arnell as well as Walton a bit. It is an enjoyable piece to be sure, but the real reason to get to know Wright’s music is the pensive, autumnal Violin Concerto.
Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 5 has become one of his best known and most often played, but had a bit of a tortured evolution. Like many of his symphonies, there are programmatic or, at least, thematic elements to the Fifth; in particular his concurrent work on the opera The Pilgrim’s Progress after John Bunyan. Vaughan Williams started and stopped the opera several times between 1936 and 1942, when he decided to take material from the opera and invest it in the manner of the new Symphony No. 5. There is certainly a thematic connection to the Bunyan allegory that runs throughout the work, especially in the Romanza (third movement) with its references to the end of life and the character’s taking stock of his contributions. The finale, a Passacaglia, actually gave Vaughan Williams quite a difficult time and it did not help his copyist and publishers that the manuscript left pages of cross-outs amid the composer’s famously bad handwriting. The Oxford edition published in 1946 was the edition of choice despite some questionable measures—tympani entrances and the like. The present recording is of the “new edition” edited by Peter Horton in 2008.
Chief among the changes are the elimination of some oddly unnecessary fortes and accents within the opening bars; that Horton and other musicologists believe were the outgrowth of Vaughan Williams himself becoming increasingly deaf and demanding things on the podium that really weren’t within the original (hard to read) draft score. I personally am a great fan of all the Vaughan Williams symphonies and I have my personal recorded favorites over the years (Barbirolli, Boult, Previn, Slatkin) but this performance by Martin Yates and the Bournemouth Symphony is quite good. I confess that I do not know this score so well that I could have picked out without prompting what is different about this from the other renditions I have heard. The Symphony No. 5 remains a deep, weighty piece and – I think – one of the composer’s best.
All performances in this recording are great. Violinist Fenella Humphreys and tenor Christopher Watson give the Wright Concerto the beauty and reminiscent quality that it deserves and both the Royal Scottish National Orchestra as well as the Bournemouth under the high quality direction of Martin Yates perform beautifully. Kudos to Michael Dutton and the engineers at Dutton Epoch for another fine job with the audio, which is clean, clear and spacious.
This is a standout recording with some fascinating music. I think the real “find” here is the Wright Concerto with its emotional impact but the Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 5 makes for a very fine addition to an existing collection of the whole set of nine or even as a first recording of the Fifth. Highly recommended!
An excellent DG debut!