Toward the Unknown Region
The Voice out of the Whirlwind
Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus
The Sons of Light
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded in February and May 2005 in the Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool
Reviewed by: Mike Wheeler
Reviewed: November 2005
CD No: NAXOS 8.557798
Duration: 62 minutes
First it was the Nash Ensemble reviving some of Vaughan Williams’s early chamber music (Hyperion). Now a major vocal work from the composer’s pre-“A Sea Symphony” period sees the light of day for the first time for nearly a century. “Willow-Wood” sets words from Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s sonnet-sequence “The House of Life”, which the composer also drew on for his song-cycle of the same name, including the well-known “Silent Noon”. Originally for baritone and piano, “Willow-Wood” is performed here in its later version for baritone, female chorus (mainly wordless) and orchestra, given once in 1909, written off at the time as a “complete flop” by the composer, and not heard again since, until now.
It turns out to be very well worth hearing – a fascinating glimpse of Vaughan Williams in his pre-Raphaelite phase, recognisably by the composer of “Songs of Travel”, and with moments of whole-tone harmony linking it to his 1903 orchestral piece In the Fen Country. Roderick Williams sings the fluid solo line with just the right kind of restrained ardour; his clear diction and some subtly varied vocal colour underline his identification with the poem’s protagonist.
While “Willow-Wood” is a major discovery, “The Voice out of the Whirlwind” is a distinct oddity. This five-minute ‘Motet for Chorus and Orchestra’ sets words from the biblical book of Job to a re-cycled version of the ‘Galliard of the Sons of the Morning’ from Vaughan Williams’s ‘Masque for Dancing’ on the same subject. And that’s the problem. While the music’s robust, hearty character fits its original dramatic context perfectly, it seems mismatched to some of the most poetic passages in the Old Testament. It’s unmistakably Vaughan Williams and everyone enters into the spirit of it, but it doesn’t round out our picture of the composer to any extent.
Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, on the other hand, is one the most deeply personal of Vaughan Williams’s shorter pieces. It gets a lovely performance, with the Royal Liverpool strings on radiant form and the harp convincingly balanced.
It’s tempting to dismiss “Toward the Unknown Region” as just a chip off the block from which “A Sea Symphony” was carved (they are both Whitman settings, after all), but in a committed performance, such as this under David Lloyd-Jones, it can make a real impact. The choir’s attack on the first word, “Darest”, tells you this is going to be one such performance. Perhaps the early stages are slightly lacking a sense of mystery, but there’s no missing the gathering sense of excitement that the performers generate as they steer the work to an exultant climax.
“The Sons of Light” is a late (1950) cantata originally for a young people’s choir, with words – by Vaughan Williams’s soon-to-be second wife, Ursula Wood – full of celestial imagery (sun, moon, and the signs of the Zodiac). Vaughan Williams’s film-score “Scott of the Antarctic” leaves its mark on the orchestral writing, inevitably so at the line “across swan-feathered plains of arctic snow”, but elsewhere too. It’s not major Vaughan Williams but I can imagine choral societies enjoying it enormously. The Liverpool singers certainly sound as if they are relishing both the vigorous energy and the gentler moments.
The recording is spacious and clear, but with just a hint of glassiness to the upper strings in Dives and Lazarus. The booklet includes full texts, with occasional minor discrepancies between the sung words and the ones printed.