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A Vaughan Williams Anthology review: There isn't a dud performance in sight!

A Vaughan Williams Anthology review: There isn't a dud performance in sight!

An Anthology by Vaughan Williams

Naxos, Friday out

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A Vaughan Williams Anthology review: There isn't a dud performance in sight!

This year marks 150 years since Ralph Vaughan Williams was born. He was a slow starter – he was almost 30 before his first totally memorable piece appeared: the enchanting song Linden Lea, set to the words of the Dorset poet William Barnes.

He had endless hang-ups about technical stuff, especially his ability to orchestrate, and destroyed much of his early music.

It wasn’t until 1908 and a trip to Paris to study with Ravel, plus constant attention from his friend Gustav Holst, that he gained the confidence to produce some extraordinary masterpieces.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (above) was a slow starter - he was almost 30 before his first fully memorable piece appeared

Ralph Vaughan Williams (above) was a slow starter – he was almost 30 before his first fully memorable piece appeared

But even that took time. A Sea Symphony began in 1903, but was not completed until 1909. Thomas Tallis’s stunningly beautiful Fantasia On A Theme was first performed in 1910, but nine years later he was still playing with it.

So is The Lark Ascending – from 1914 to 1920. All of these can be found in this excellent set.

In later life – he turned 85 and composed until the end – he became prolific. So maybe too much.

Listening to the more than 30 pieces in this anthology reminds me of what was said about Beethoven: consistency of performance is the mark of mediocrity.

Thomas Beecham, a great admirer of the Tallis Variations, once cruelly remarked how unfortunate it was that Vaughan Williams did not see fit to include a theme from Tallis in all his music. When you listen to some of these things, it’s hard not to empathize.

But there are also things here that deserve more attention than they get. For example, his early Norfolk Rhapsody No 1, Toward The Unknown Region for chorus and orchestra, and his string quartets and quintet.

These recordings, made between 1993 and 2015, all sound good, and there is no dud in between. If you agree with me that 2022 is the year to delve deeper into Vaughan Williams, warts and all, this anthology is a great way to do that.

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