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 Recording of the Week  Vaughan Williams

Vaughan Williams is generally considered a very ‘English’ composer. This is not surprising considering that many of his most popular works have English connections. Top of the Classic FM Hall of Fame charts for the last two years is The Lark Ascending, a piece for violin and orchestra which evokes the languid pastoral England of our dreams in which a skylark rises into the heavens. His Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis looks back to the traditional English choral music of Purcell, Byrd, and, of course, Tallis and conjures up visions of Tudor Courts. And despite being a ‘determined atheist’ he edited the English Hymnal, and spent much of his life collecting English folk music and songs.

Ralph Vaughan Williams
Ralph Vaughan Williams

However, pigeon hole this ‘Englishness’ too much, and there is a danger that you start to underestimate his importance on the world stage. For in a long and productive life, music flowed from his creative pen in profusion. He wrote in almost every genre, and his output included nine symphonies, five operas, film music, ballet and stage music, several song cycles, church and choral music, and chamber music.

Add into this the influence that he had on his contemporaries and you are left with a true giant of his time, and not just in England. Rachmaninov was reportedly ‘moved to tears’ at the premiere of the composer’s Serenade to Music in 1938, while Bartók was a known admirer of the modernist Piano Concerto. There was also of course a huge generation of English composers who owe a debt to him, not least Benjamin Britten.

I've spent much of the last few months listening to his music and have been constantly amazed by the quantity and quality of his work (and also how little of it I actually knew!). Many people are familiar with the sort of favourites mentioned above, but I'd strongly recommend venturing beyond these and in particular exploring some of the choral and vocal music. We've got a very special price on the big EMI Vaughan Williams set of 30 CDs (which includes the very fine Vernon Handley Symphony cycle), but also worthy of mention below is a new 4 CD set of Choral Works from Hyperion, and for the first 3 releases from Albion Records, a label which seeks to resurrect the rarer side of the composer. Alternatively another good place to start exploring might be our Vaughan Williams page.

Vaughan Williams - Choral Works (4 CDs)

Issued to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Vaughan Williams’s death, this collection is tantalizing: it starts with one of the best-selling discs in the the catalogue, the Serenade to Music, and includes such favourites as the Five Mystical Songs and The Hundreth Psalm. There are also two intriguing pairings: in Dona nobis pacem, RVW warns of the impending doom of WWII; in A Song of Thanksgiving we hear his moving response to its successful conclusion.

Available Format: CD