Friday 9 December 2016

Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow provide spectacularly fine performances on their new disc of two piano transcriptions of Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony and Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis for Albion Records

Albion Records  the recording label of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society have already released a recording of the arrangement for two pianos by Michael Mullinar of Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No.6.

Now from Albion comes Mullinar’s two piano arrangement of Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony coupled with The Running Set and Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis all performed by leading British piano duo Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow


The gestation period for Ralph Vaughan Williams’ (1872-1958) stage work The Pilgrim’s Progress (1951) lasted many years, from his music for a Bunyan dramatization at Reigate Priory in 1906 through his pastoral episode The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains (1922) to what eventually became his opera or, as he preferred to call it, a morality. When he came to write his Symphony No.5 in D major, in 1943, he again drew on themes that would be used in The Pilgrim’s Progress though in a thoroughly symphonic way.

Vaughan Williams often asked his former pupil, Michael Mullinar (1895-1973), to give an initial play through of his symphonies so it was natural that the composer should choose him to arrange his Fifth Symphony for two pianos. Here it is played in Vaughan Williams’ revision edited by Anthony Goldstone.

Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow create so much of the magic of the original in the opening of the Preludio: Moderato of the Fifth Symphony subtly building the musical lines and harmonies, pointing up many striking aspects of this music that are easily overlooked in orchestral guise. There is a strength here that reveals more than ever Vaughan Williams’ true nature, an underlying grit and power. The music rises to a forceful peak with these two formidable musicians bringing a tremendous authority. When the music falls away, the haunting quality is palpable.

The Scherzo: Presto misterioso bubbles up through some terrific bars in the opening as the music develops a terrific rhythmic pulse. There are some lovely little dissonances heard more clearly in this arrangement. These pianists bring the most amazing ensemble, finding a terrific fluency through Vaughan Williams’ sparkling phrases. Phrasing, tempo and rhythmic changes are superbly done.  

The heart of this magnificent symphony is the Romanza: Lento where the self-professed agnostic composer inscribed on the manuscript score ‘Upon this place stood a cross, and a little below a sepulchre. He hath given me rest by his sorrow and life by his death.’ Goldstone and Clemmow keep a fine tempo; the glorious theme is allowed to develop wonderfully. They provide some spine tingling moments of emotional depth before rising centrally with some playing of remarkable brilliance and power, only to pull back in a moment of great intensity. When they resume the steady tread, the effect is overwhelming as we are led to a plaintive, gentle coda.

Goldstone and Clemmow strike just the right tempo in the Passacaglia: Moderato moving purposefully forward, developing some lovely musical lines. They soon find the developing rhythm, picking up the tempo in passages of great brilliance and strength before finding a peak. When they share the theme they reveal even more than before their intuitive partnership.  One can hear so much more clearly the development passages, always with a sense of moving forward toward a goal. Later there is another peak where these two fine pianists achieve a bell like clarity before finding a tranquillity and peace in the coda.

Surely the Fifth Symphony is as much a spiritual journey as Pilgrims Progress. Certainly this fine duo takes us on a wonderful journey.

The Running Set is an arrangement of traditional dance tunes for orchestra written in 1933 and first performed in London in 1934. The arrangement for two pianos was made by Vally Lasker and Helen Bidder in 1936. These two pianists were associates of Gustav Holst and were involved in an early play through of Vaughan Williams’ Piano Concerto and played through the Fourth Symphony at St. Paul’s Girls School, Hammersmith, London where Holst was Director of Music.

There is an arresting opening with this duo bringing some amazing ensemble, as though four hands but one mind. Their playing is full of rhythmic joy as it moves through passages of the most impressive power and fluency. There are some fast and furious passages of terrific virtuosity, a quite incredible pianistic display finding a spontaneity and abandon as the music heads towards the coda.  

The young Herbert Howells and Ivor Gurney famously walked the streets of Gloucester completely overwhelmed by the first performance of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis in 1910. When editing the English Hymnal, a commission he had received in 1904, the composer had come across Thomas Tallis’ (c.1505-1585) magnificent theme. The arrangement for two pianos was undertaken by Maurice Jacobson, a pupil of Holst who also arranged Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G minor as a Communion Service for Anglican use as well as arranging the composer’s ballet score Old King Cole for piano.

The opening chords set a wonderful scene before Tallis’ theme is presented in staccato phrases.  Goldstone and Clemmow move ahead with striking effect soon providing an extra strength as the music rises. They pace it beautifully, allowing an organic growth, often bringing a timeless sense of grandeur. The church acoustic allows the music to expand magnificently, revealing some lovely details, particularly in the slower, quieter sections. When the music soars to the heights as it reaches its peak it is truly magnificent before this duo weave some quite lovely moments in the later stages.

If any work on this disc was likely to fall flat it would surely have been the Tallis Fantasia. In the event Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow deliver a spectacularly fine performance that soars, shimmers and glows.

This whole disc is a remarkable achievement, superbly recorded at the church of St. John the Baptist, Alkborough, North Lincolnshire, England. There are excellent booklet notes from John Francis and Anthony Goldstone.

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