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Vaughan Williams Piano Concerto
and The Wasps

The Wasps (Aristophanic Suite) (1909)
Piano Concerto in C (1926/1930)
English Folk Songs Suite (orchestrated by Gordon JACOB (1924) (1923)
The Running Set (1933)

Ashley Wass – piano; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/James Judd

NAXOS 8.572304 [TT 69:37]

Sometimes one feels like a social pariah if one dares to say something against an accepted custom or way of thinking. Therefore, if I tell you that the Vaughan Williams Piano Concerto is a very poor work, then I am probably off many people’s Christmas Card lists. But the problem here is with a composer who has been taken to our hearts as the grand old man of English music, the creator (in many ways) of Greensleeves – I would wager that more assume that VW wrote the tune rather than simply arranged it – against whom nothing critical or negative can be said or written. But occasionally I am left wondering why we have come to allow ourselves to accept such comments without question.

For instance, were I to say to you, “Havergal Brian is this country’s greatest Symphonist since Elgar” I have the suspicion that I would very quickly be taken to task. Many years ago Roger Wright said to me that Percy Grainger was the only composer whose music he knew where he loved every note. At the time that was true but since Chandos recorded their Grainger Edition, and delved into all the back– and side roads much music of lesser inspiration has been dredged up which simply isn’t of the standard we were used to, so Wright’s comment can no longer hold water. So I return to my original comment. Vaughan Williams’s Piano Concerto is a poor work.

I attended the Proms performance of the piece (12 August 2008, Ashley Wass with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra under Vasily Sinaisky) and what bothered me at that performance was that John Pickard wrote in the programme book, that, “The concerto’s considerable originality is ultimately built on its deliberate disassociation from the Romantic concerto tradition…[it] is essentially a re-imagining of the Baroque concerto grosso, in which the solo part was often integrated within the main body of instruments, with the focus periodically shifting between one and the other.” This struck me as misunderstanding the work. The Concerto Grosso, in 20th century hands, always showed the Concerto type of give and take – listen to any of Martinu’s works in this style (he called himself “A kind of Concerto Grosso kind of composer”) – and that is what is missing here.

The slow movement is a delight, a beautiful pastoral outpouring, worthy of VW, and it could stand alone as another excursion into the Fen Country but the movements which surround it, I have to say, are slack and cheap. The first movement is all bluster and the finale is based on a trombone theme of such incredible banality as to be embarrassing to listen to.

I am not anti Vaughan Williams by any means, but this work leaves me cold, and highly unsatisfied; it doesn’t have the compositional cohesion which is a hallmark of VW’s style. Where is the logic to be found in the 5th Symphony? The fire of the 4th? The passion of the London Symphony? The restrained coda to the final movement seems at odds with what has gone before and doesn’t really make a satisfying conclusion.

I have known this piece for many years – I bought the Lyrita Howard Shelley/Vernon Handley recording many years ago and I have listened to it many times. My opinion is not a knee jerk reaction to something which doesn’t appeal, but it has been formed after many years of thought. If you can gain pleasure from this work then I am very pleased for you. Otherwise, steer clear - there is much better in the VW catalogue which deserves our attention.

The Aristophanic Suite of incidental music is lovely, and it is easy to see why the Overture has become such a favourite. The English Folk Song Suite was written for military band and orchestrated by Gordon Jacob. To me this version, good though it is, seems to have had the hard corners removed and everything is nice and smooth. In the original version there is a rawness lacking here. The Running Set, which ends the disk, is a quodlibet of English folk tunes and it is fun.

Over all, although the planning is very good, and the recording up to Naxos’s usual standard, I find myself feeling let down by the whole enterprise for, apart from The Wasps Overture ! Perhaps time will prove me wrong about the Piano Concerto...

Bob Briggs