Saturday, 30 December 2017

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Winter from Folk Songs of the Four Seasons – the recordings

In 2009, the Albion Record company issued the first full recording of the Folk Songs of the Four Seasons (ALBCD010). The CD also included the suite In Windsor Forest which was a series of songs extracted from the opera Sir John in Love.  The performers include The Choir of Clare College Choir, Cambridge, English Voices and the Dmitri Ensemble conducted by David Willcocks
John Steane, reviewing the CD for The Gramophone (November 2009), writes that ‘A world-premiere recording of works by Vaughan Williams is surely at this date something of a world event. The scope is modest, but the appeal of such grace of spirit and mastery of means transcends such limitations.’  Although the choral forces on this disc do not match the 3000 plus of the Albert Hall premiere, the ‘effect…is delightful.’ Steane notes that ‘the orchestrations have the unfailing touch of a composer fully engaged in his task and the recording does full justice to the generous, affectionate work…’

The appraisal by Rob Barnett on MusicWeb International (September 2009) is extensive and imaginative. He begins by noting the fact that this is ‘an almost completely unknown work’. He thinks it strange that the Folk Songs of the Four Seasons concludes with ‘winter’ but understands that ‘it is largely Christmas that is celebrated rather than the icy chill of mortality.’  As to the four Winter songs, Barnett writes: ‘The Children's Christmas Song’ shows RVW's compassionate humanity when he writes with touching effect of the poor children at Christmas ‘wandering in the mire’. Wassail Song has the ale-jar clinking power of the John Barleycorn movement…In Bethlehem City is a silvery carol cherishable for any Christmas watch service. The final section God Bless the Master has that wonderful sense of journey done, homecoming summation and sky ascendant victories. RVW writes with light in his pen and light shines through these cleverly laid out and lovingly performed movements.’ 

Ronald E. Grames, writing in Fanfare (January/Febriary 2010) gave a long, considered review of this work. He presented a brief history of its genesis reminding readers that it posed a ‘unique practical challenge for the composer. Vaughan Williams surmounted the limitations splendidly, alternating and joining the large chorus of unison singers with a smaller chorus of those capable of part singing and a select a cappella chorus.’ Not only was choral writing successful, but the composer produced ‘a sparkling orchestral accompaniment of bright, exuberant winds and dark viola-rich strings…’ Finally, Grames sums up the work by suggesting that ‘the cantata demonstrates Vaughan Williams's talent for sounding both contemporary and nostalgically familiar while respecting the folk originals in style and spirit.’

In the same year (2009) Naxos issued an anthology of ‘seasonal music’ on a CD entitled In Terra Pax (8.572102). Included on this disc was the ‘Winter’ section of Folk Songs of the Four Seasons. The music is sung by the City of London Choir accompanied by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hilary Davan Wetton.
The CD was reviewed by Steve Schwartz for Classical Net (June 2012). Schwartz writes that ‘I’d previously heard this in churches at Christmas with piano accompaniment only, so it was a particular pleasure to hear it with the orchestra.’ Finally, David Vernier Classics Today (November 2009) pointed out the Naxos CD ‘program ends in grand style with Vaughan Williams’ ‘God bless the Master’…You can’t help but be caught up in the joyful spirit that’s apparent throughout all the performances on this disc, from the soloists and accompanists to the choir and orchestra.’ 

From my own perspective, Vaughan Williams has created a magical impression of ‘Winter’ as seen through the perspective of a traditional Christmas. It is a well-written work that overcomes all possible technical obstacles. It is hard to imagine that the Folk Songs of the Four Seasons is not in the repertoire of choirs across the county. As noted in the first part of this post, the work is an exploration of the Four Seasons: there is no reason why any single ‘season’ cannot be excerpted as appropriate to the time of year. 

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