I write these words on Ralph Vaughan Williams’s 150th birthday (he was born at Down Ampney, Gloucestershire on October 12th 1872), on my desk a disc that in terms of both content and technology would have been unimaginable when I first encountered the composer’s music around 65 years ago. ‘Vaughan Williams Live Volume 2’ [SOMM Ariadne 5018], c£10.50 has as its centrepiece a concert performance of ‘Job: A Masque for Dancing’ that predates the conductor’s four commercial recordings and features an Orchestra, the Boston Symphony, that three years later was to play RVW’s Sixth Symphony under the Orchestra’s principal conductor, the great Serge Koussevitzky (a revealing rehearsal for that performance is available at https://pastdaily.com/2018/08/19/serge-koussevitzky-and-the-boston-symphony-rehearse-vaughan-williams-1949-past-daily-weekend-gramophone/). Boult’s Boston ‘Job’ has the players perched on the edges of their seats, or so it seems, their reactions lightning quick (‘Dance of Job’s Comforters’, track 8), fervently responsive (Elihu’s Dance of Youth and Beauty …’, the violin soloist presumably the Orchestra’s concertmaster at the time, Richard Burgin, a pupil of Joachim and Auer), or dramatic (the start of ‘Galliard of. the Sons of the Morning …’, track 10). Certainly Boult appears to convey the music’s profound essence, both to the Orchestra and to an appreciative audience, much as he did for other English scores with the NBC Symphony, the Concertgebouw, the Vienna Philharmonic, Vienna State Opera and other orchestras. But what registers above all else is the intensity of feeling generated, the idea that this is a musically overwhelming work, which it is.
But there’s more, two performances featuring Boult with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, the first, recorded in the BBC’s studios on 5th November 1944 as the Allied armies were being held up in Belgium. The work grew from plans for a musical celebration marking Hitler’s defeat. Victory in Europe Day was delayed until 8thMay 1945 and RVW’s ‘Thanksgiving for Victory’ (renamed ‘A Song of Thanksgiving’ in 1952) was broadcast five days later. A proudly outstretched sense of gratitude rides high on the words of Shakespeare, Kipling and the Bible, the music celebratory in the extreme (so touchingly significant given that we’ve experienced a period national mourning so recently), the participating performers, all of them warmly dedicated, the soprano Elsie Suddaby, Valentine Dyall, narrator, George Thalben-Ball and the Choir of the Children of the Thomas Coram Schools. The sound for the entire CD has been miraculously restored by Lani Spahr.
I thank Edward Johnson for altering me to a 40-minutes radio programme on RVW’s “Serenade to Music” (to words by Shakespeare) that has made its appearance on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQ6yZWSo8Ck&t=696s), especially as the ‘Serenade’ is the third work on this priceless collection, part of a concert of English music given by the BBC forces under Boult on 29th September 1946 on the opening night of the BBC Third Programme (later to be renamed BBC Radio 3). The incomparable soloists are soprano Isobel Baille, the contralto Astra Desmond, the tenor Beveridge White and the baritone Harold Williams. The original version is for sixteen distinguished soloists, here reduced to four with chorus and orchestra, and that this gorgeous work – which opens like a cross between RVW’s ‘Lark Ascending’ and Brahms’s ‘Song of Destiny’ – should have appeared in that particular radio context proves beyond question that whatever the value of worthy Reithian principles, when it comes to broadcasting music to the people nothing works better than unsullied beauty. The disc’s excellent annotations are by Simon Heffer.