Varied Menu From One Of Britain’s Beloved Figures

The Bergen Philharmonic is one of Norway’s two national orchestras and one of the oldest orchestras in the world, with a history dating back to 1765. Photo: Trgve Schonfelder
By Paul E. Robinson

Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 7 (Sinfonia Antartica); Four Last Songs (orchestrated by Anthony Payne); Concerto in C major for Piano & Orchestra (arranged for two pianos and orchestra by the composer and Joseph Cooper). Mari Eriksmoen, soprano. Roderick Williams, baritone. Hélène Mercier & Louis Lortie, pianos. Bergen Philharmonic Choir. Edvard Grieg Kor. Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Davis, conductor. Chandos CHSA 5186. Total Time: 77:47.

Vaughan Williams’ wife Ursula, a poet, wrote the text for his Four Last Songs.

DIGITAL REVIEW – During his lifetime (1872-1958), Ralph Vaughan Williams was a beloved figure in Britain’s musical life, and he continues to be celebrated for works such as the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis and The Lark Ascending. In England, he is also greatly admired for his nine symphonies, which have not generated much interest in other countries. In St. Louis and Detroit, Leonard Slatkin has been a tireless Vaughan Williams advocate, and in Atlanta, Robert Spano produced a fine recording of Symphony No. 1, A Sea Symphony (Telarc SACD-60588). But few other American conductors seem to have any of the Vaughan Williams symphonies in their repertoire.

British conductor Andrew Davis, current president of the Vaughan Williams Society, has had a long and enduring presence in North America. He was music director of the Toronto Symphony from 1975 to 1988 and continues as its conductor laureate, and he has been music director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago since 2000. Surprisingly, however, over his more than 40-year association with the Toronto Symphony (TSO), he has conducted only four works by Vaughan Williams with the orchestra and only one of his symphonies, the Sinfonia Antartica and that occurred more than 23 years ago.

That said, Davis did record all the Vaughan Williams symphonies in the 1990s with the BBC Symphony (Warner Classics/Teldec 2564698483), and it appears that with this recording, he has embarked on a second go-around with the Bergen  Philharmonic for Chandos. Symphony No. 9 was released last year, and now we have a new version of Sinfonia Antartica.

Sinfonia Antartica is based on a score Vaughan Williams wrote for the film Scott of the Antarctic in 1948 that tells the story of British Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his ill-fated expedition to the South Pole in 1910-12. Scott’s goal was to be the first explorer to reach the South Pole, but he and his party made it there only to find that the Norwegian Roald Amundsen had reached it first. There was worse to come. On the journey home, Scott and his three surviving team members succumbed to brutal weather. Vaughan Williams’ score superbly illustrates the vastness of Antarctica and the cruel elements that ultimately crushed Scott and his team.

In 1949, Vaughan Williams decided to fashion elements of his Scott of the Antarctic film score into what became his Symphony No. 7, Sinfonia Antartica. Many commentators have concluded that Sinfonia Antartica is not, in fact, a symphony, but rather a symphonic suite of scenes from Antarctica and the Scott expedition.

Canadian pianist Hélène Mercier

Be that as it may, Sinfonia Antartica employs a large orchestra, with wind machine, organ, celesta, and piano all contributing important and very effective solos. The organ in the third movement is absolutely hair-raising in depicting the power of nature and man’s struggle for survival in an unwelcoming environment. A wordless high soprano and a female chorus in the first and last movements create an otherworldly effect reminiscent of a similar one in The Planets, a symphonic suite by Vaughan Williams’ close friend, Gustav Holst.

Although Davis and his Norwegian forces give a fine reading of the Sinfonia Antartica on this recording, the one to have is still the 1985 recording by Bernard Haitink and the London Philharmonic (Warner Classics 5099998475926), which in my opinion conveys even more weight and anguish in addition to an extraordinarily thrilling organ solo.

Vaughan Williams composed his C major Piano Concerto in the years 1926-31. The premiere performance by Harriet Cohen in 1933 was not a success. Some years later, persuaded that it might work better as a concerto for two pianos, Vaughan Williams authorized Joseph Cooper to come up with a re-arrangement of the piece. The resultant score is a formidable, forward-looking piece for its time. Often chromatic and dense, it shows some evidence of Vaughan Williams’ studies with Ravel. Oddly, the concerto ends with a cadenza for the two pianists. In this new recording, Canadian pianists Hélène Mercier and Louis Lortie give the piece a committed outing, and the work emerges as many-faceted and compelling.

This new CD also includes Vaughan Williams’ Four Last Songs in what is billed as “the premier recording for male voice.” The accompaniments for these songs, which were written between 1954-58, were orchestrated by Anthony Payne in 2013. Although baritone Roderick Williams sings well, one wonders if the often low-lying voice part might be easily covered by the orchestra in a live performance.

In spite of the title, these songs — shorter, less ambitious, and far more delicate — are not to be compared with the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss. Vaughan Williams’ second wife, Ursula, was a lifelong published poet and often wrote the texts for his compositions. The poems selected for these songs are deeply personal and reflect the depth of the love between Vaughan Williams and the woman who was his greatest inspiration in his later years.

(Video: Sir Andrew Davis ‘air conducting’ Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia Antartica in the studio in Bergen.)

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for (formerly, and