The Wasps – Aristophanic Suite
Piano Concerto in C
English Folk Song Suite [orch. Gordon Jacob]
The Running Set
Ashley Wass (piano)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded 27 & 28 January 2009 in Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: October 2009
CD No: NAXOS 8.572304
Duration: 70 minutes
This splendid collection, focusing on Ralph Vaughan Williams’s underrated Piano Concerto, begins with a bang as the Overture to “The Wasps” (Aristophanes’s comedy) buzzes into life, James Judd setting a cracking tempo for the fast music and easing gently into the glorious slow melody that so-evokes open, blissful country, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic on top of the composer’s rhythmic ingenuities and opening-out its collective heart as required. The remainder of the Suite is equally enticing, respectively affectionate and ceremonial in the two movements named ‘Entr’acte’, witty in ‘March of the Kitchen Utensils’, and rumbustious in the pastiche of the closing ‘Ballet and Final Tableau’.
If Vaughan Williams’s score for “The Wasps” might be described as quintessentially English (and, indeed, popular), his Piano Concerto (first heard in 1933 played by Harriet Cohen, Adrian Boult conducting) is made of sterner stuff, enough to appeal to Bartók; yet, although it has an edge, there is also initially a playful side that entices the listener, who will also appreciate its spiky details and the rigour of the music, the tension-filled pages suggesting a now-darker landscape (how apt the cover picture is); and in the slow unaccompanied passage for the pianist that introduces the ‘Romanza’ second movement, one can hear influences of the afore-mentioned Bartók as well as Debussy and Prokofiev. The movement itself is contemplative if troubled, with a mystic quality, yet with burgeoning consolation (that anticipates Vaughan Williams’s wartime Fifth Symphony) – all very sensitively distilled by Ashley Wass and the RLPO. Wass, his British music credentials already nailed firmly to the Naxos mast, is a great champion of a piece that demands to be heard more often, crystalline in the ‘chromatic fugue’ that launches the finale, some of the most outspoken music in the work, the rather cynical waltz that intercedes maybe suggesting a crumbling society; and the quiet close leaves a question mark. (Maybe Wass and a friend can now record the work in its version for two pianos.)
After this, the English Folk Song Suite (originally for military band and orchestrated by Gordon Jacob) is plain-sailing, its fund of tunes, lively steps and the heartfelt middle movement (‘My Bonny Boy’) always an enjoyable listen, certainly with James Judd setting relaxed tempos to really show the ‘point’ of the outer movements, and expressively moulding the middle one. To complete this desirable issue, one very well recorded, not least the beneficial concert-hall balance afforded the Piano Concerto, is the skirl and twirl of The Running Set, a foot-tapping, shoulder-swaying collection of folksongs.