Vaughan Williams Live, Vol. 4 – SOMM Ariadne

by | Mar 9, 2023 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS, Vol. 4 = Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis; Concerto in C for Two Pianos and Orchestra; Symphony No. 8 in D Minor – SOMM Ariadne 5020 (71:56, complete credits below) (2/10/23) [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

Somm extends the celebration of composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ 150th birthday with this release of concert performances of three major works by two significant conductors, Mitropoulos and Barbirolli. Conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos (1896-1960) first recorded the 1910 Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Talllis in Minneapolis, 1945. Thirteen years later, in 1958. Mitropoulos recorded the work for Columbia once more, this with the New York Philharmonic in a magnificent, blistering reading whose relatively brief duration (12:40) did not detract from the incandescent level of the playing.

The present performance of 29 August 1943 captures Mitropoulos in a more expansive mood (16:58), lingering over the B-flat, Phrygian exposition of the theme in broad strokes, emphasizing its organ sonorities as the music passes in rich antiphons within the divided string ensemble. Alternating between Brucknerian swells and cadences and intimate, concerto-grosso meditations from the orchestra, pp, and the string quartet continuo, Mitropoulos evokes an occasion of solemn grandeur. The solo viola, in C Major, introduces a new modality, piu animato, that two orchestras pick up for both contention and unity. Mitropoulos keeps the organic pulsations taut and compelling, the music’s moving in romantic spasms to a grand climax that may well stand as Vaughan Williams’ chamber version of Tristan und Isolde. With the subsequent adagio section and re-introduction of the opening pizzicato strokes, the violin assumes command of the quartet ensemble with a heart-rending annunciation of the theme that the tutti carries forward, so the solo violin may offer a soaring, luminous conclusion in G Major.

Mitropoulos assumes the podium of the New York Philharmonic again on 17 February 1952, leading a performance of Vaughan Williams’ 1946 arrangement of his relatively unsuccessful 1931 Piano Concerto in C Major, revised for two pianos with the help of pianist Joseph Cooper. For this performance from New York, duo-pianists Arthur Whittemore (1916-1984) and Jack Lowe (1916-1996) join Mitropoulos, the duo’s having recorded the Poulenc 2-Piano Concerto with him in Minneapolis. The first movement opens with a fierce and steely Toccata: Allegro moderato, really a display piece, a combination of Bartok and English folk sensibility, driven by the Mitropoulos penchant for slashing, wind-swept rhythms and color harmonies. A bridge-cadenza links us to the second movement, Romanza: Lento, modeled in mood and scoring after the Ravel Concerto in G. A dreamy, impressionist sensibility flows forth, lyrical and emotionally uncluttered. The last movement offers an athletic allegro, marked Fuga chromatica con Finale alla tedesca, that subdivides into two sections, the polyphonic material and the subsequent, brash waltz tissue, that will conclude pizzicato, the main theme’s having been transposed into B Major. It is perhaps the pesante, stentorian character of the waltz that earns it the designation “in the German style.”  Somm has retained the announcements for both of Mitropoulos’ concerts.

Co-incidentally, conductor Sir John Barbirolli (1899-1970) had himself led the New York Philharmonic Orchestra as successor to Arturo Toscanini, 1937-1942. Here, we travel to Free Trade Hall. Manchester for the 15 May 1964 concert featuring Vaughn Williams’ Eighth Symphony (1953-55), dedicated to Barbirolli, “To glorious John, with love and admiration.” The symphony, in four movements, enjoys a lush optimism of spirit, opening with a first movement Moderato that bears the designation Fantasia (Variazioni senza Tema), a fantasy whose variants lack a specific theme. The composer presents seven variations that shift tempo, color, and texture, but which maintain an emotional serenity, even proclaiming a militant, resolute joyousness that evanesces at the coda.

In a virtuoso manner reminiscent of Bartok (Concerto for Orchestra), Vaughn Williams scores the second movement for brass and woodwinds, the Scherzo alla marcia a brief but swirling panoply of colors in the marching-band sensibility. The Halle string alone realize the third movement Cavatina, sumptuously, rhetorically romantic in a manner easily recalling, via solo violin (Martin Milner) and responsory, the Tallis Fantasia. Commentators note that the warm melody bears a resemblance to motifs in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. The apocryphal story of the finale: Toccata: Moderato maestoso claims that the opening gong sound was borrowed from Puccini’s Turandot, a performance of which the newly-married Vaughan Williams had attended with wife Ursula Wood. The full orchestra embarks upon the clangorously bright Toccata with a hearty and opulent vigor. If exotic and percussive elements point to both Bartok and Busoni as models, the rich flavor of the scoring and its exuberance dismiss any “academic” debts, and the performance blazes with all of its personal significance.

—Gary Lemco


Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis;
Concerto in C for Two Pianos and Orchestra;
Symphony No. 8 in D Minor

Whittemore and Lowe, pianos
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Dimitri Mitropoulos
Halle Orchestra, Sir John Barbirolli (Symphony)

More Information Available Through SOMM Recordings:

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Album Cover for Vaughn Williams Live, Vol. 4

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