Thursday 27 November 2014

A highly recommendable release from Naxos of two World Premiere recordings of Gerald Finzi and Ivor Gurney as well as a superb performance of Vaughan Williams’ An Oxford Elegy performed by the City of London Choir and London Mozart Players conducted by Hilary Davan Wetton with baritone Roderick Williams and speaker Jeremy Irons

Vaughan Williams wrote his suite for viola, chorus and orchestra, Flos Campi (Flowers of the Field) in 1926 with the memories of the First World War fresh in his memory.

A new release from Naxos is entitled Flowers of the Field and brings works by composers, including Vaughan Williams, who were all affected by the carnage of the First World War. This new recording includes two world premieres and features the City of London Choir and London Mozart Players conducted by Hilary Davan Wetton  with Roderick Williams (baritone)  and Jeremy Irons (speaker).

George Butterworth (1885-1916) was a promising young composer who, as his dates poignantly show, was cut down in the war.  A Shropshire Lad – Rhapsody for Orchestra gives a fine inkling as to what we may have expected from him. Vaughan William’s wrote to Holst from the front that ‘I sometimes dread coming back to normal life with so many gaps – especially of course George Butterworth…’

Hilary Davan Wetton draws some beautifully sensitive playing from the London Mozart Players in this most affecting work, finding just the right degree of passion as the music rises up from its hushed opening. Wetton, at times, brings a magnificent breadth to the music often finding moments of orchestral detail that could be overlooked.

A major find here is the youthful work by Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) his Requiem da Camera for orchestra, chorus and baritone (edited and completed by Christian Alexander) written in 1923-24 and dedicated to the memory of ‘EBF’ Finzi’s teacher and mentor, Ernest Farrar (1885-1918) who was killed right at the end of the war. A setting of poems by John Masefield, Thomas Hardy and Wilfrid Wilson Gibson it opens with an orchestral Prelude, a shifting orchestral motif that soon steadies into a firm rich melody that has many mature Finzi traits. There are moments of great passion and, towards the end, an orchestral phrase that seems to echo a trumpet call.

The City of London Choir join for How still this quiet cornfield is tonight a telling soliloquy for the countryside of England on the brink of war. As the choir rise up they bring some lovely moments, full of passion with soprano Natasha Harbinson and tenor David Bagnall making a brief appearance to point up Masefield’s text.

Only a man harrowing clods brings baritone, Roderick Williams, in this Hardy setting, beautifully orchestrated. Williams uses his fine rich baritone voice to elevate this setting to one of great feeling and sensitivity particularly in the last verse on the words ‘War’s annals will cloud into night ere their story die.’

We who are left, a setting of a poem by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, has a plodding orchestral opening to which choir soon join with a lovely weaving of vocal lines, slowly moving ahead, rising in intensity as it does. Soprano, Emily Tidbury joins for ‘A bird among the rain wet lilac sings – But we, how shall we turn to little things’  to which the choir responds ‘We who are left, how shall we look again happily on the sun or feel the rain.’’ The orchestra evokes the feel of a trumpet call for the quiet coda.

This is a substantial work of much beauty for which we should thank Christian Alexander for his work realising the score and, indeed, these artists for providing such a fine performance.

The composer and poet, Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) was already suffering from mental problems before he enlisted in the 5th Gloucester Reserve Battalion. He was wounded then gassed at Passchendale before being invalided back to England. He did resume his studies at the Royal College of Music but his mental state deteriorated eventually leading to his spending the last fifteen years of his life in a mental institution.

The Trumpet (1921) (edited and orchestrated by Philip Lancaster) for chorus and orchestra was written while Gurney was still able to compose and forms part of his Edward Thomas cycle Lights Out. The work opens with an almost ceremonial feel as the choir and orchestra sound out in ‘Rise up, rise up ….’. Yet immediately the text reveals the true feelings of the music ‘…as the trumpet blowing scatters the dreams of men.’ For all the occasional weaker moments, there is a strength and passion with Gurney’s chorus singing out loudly and passionately ‘Scatter it, scatter it.’ before the final ‘Arise, arise.’

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) seemed to be looking back some thirty years to his own war experiences and, more particularly the loss of friends including George Butterworth, when he wrote An Oxford Elegy (1947-49) a setting of Matthew Arnold.

For all the distance of time this music is no less profound as a gentle orchestral opening reveals an aching nostalgia. The choir gently enter singing ‘Go for they call you, shepherd from the hill’ in some of Vaughan Williams’ most inspired writing, creating a rather unworldly atmosphere. The choir and orchestra rise up but drop back as the speaker, Jeremy Irons enters on ‘Go, shepherd and untie the wattled cotes’ proving an absolutely superb narrator, subtly following the texts, finding a new inflection for each word. The choir enter bringing a lovely gentle flow to ‘Here will we sit and wait’ evoking, musically, memories of the composer’s Serenade to Music. When the choir and orchestra support the speaker the balance is nicely done.

It is truly memorable as Irons gets to the words ‘And the eye travels down to Oxford’s towers’ and ‘Come, let me read the off-read tale again, the story of that Oxford scholar poor.’ Vaughan Williams’ use of orchestra, choir and speaker is masterly as, indeed, is this performance. One would need a heart of steel not to respond to this beautiful and poignant performance of this great work. Jeremy Irons rises to the dramatic passages magnificently, bringing out the palpable sense of loss in ‘They are gone and thou art gone as well.’

This is a very fine performance in every way, quite superb and one which I have listened to a number of times already.

This is a highly recommendable release with two important World Premiere recordings as well as a superb performance of An Oxford Elegy together making a fine evocation of an England that would soon be lost forever. These performers receive a very fine recording from the team of Andrew Walton (producer) and Mike Clements (engineer) made at London’s Henry Wood Hall, UK.

There are excellent booklet notes and full English texts. 

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