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Vaughn Williams: Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis; Norfolk Rhapsody No.1; In
the Fen Country; Fantasia on Greensleeves; Concerto grosso
James Judd refreshes these Vaughan Williams chestnuts with a distinctly American directness of address and clarity of line, without violating their essential songful breadth.
The introductory chords of the Tallis Fantasia, for example, usually hang in the air ambiguously, as if suspending time; Judd paces them more tightly, shaping them into a clearly directed phrase from the outset. Shortly thereafter, the main theme sings with its customary grave dignity, but its underlying buoyancy has almost a waltz feel, and Judd propels the central section of the piece urgently and dramatically. Indeed, the conductor tends actively to impel the climaxes forward, rather than "allowing" them to unfold in the manner of the best British practitioners; but the music never feels pressured - there's always space and time to breathe. The viola solo midway through sounds unsettled, but the violin solo later on pulses with vibrant life.
Similarly, after the fragile hush of its opening, the shapely lyrical lines of the Norfolk Rhapsody No.1 - there never was a No. 2 - fill out the textures richly. And the strings lean into Greensleeves's simple modal melody so as to underline its ambivalent emotional undercurrents; the cool, clear flute solos bewitch the ear.
The Concerto grosso for strings is less of a chestnut, and collectors will enjoy hearing it played by a full string orchestra instead of the usual chamber-sized group. The firm, full-bodied tone and attack is gratifying, especially effective in bringing out the central Sarabande's dusky solemnity, while the tightly focused bass reproduction provides a solid foundation to the sonority.
Only In the Fen Country - the sort of English pastoral that reduces Vaughan Williams to a sort of extra-good Delius - rambles on too long, as it usually does. Even here, the orchestra sounds unfailingly beautiful; the solo horn phrases are especially plangent.
No real complaints about the full, clear engineering, although I expected the acoustic to blossom more in peak passages - those of the Tallis Fantasia seem a bit dry and unblended. Warmly recommended nonetheless.
Zemlinsky: Symphonies: No.1 in D minor*; No.2 in B flat+
The "Mahler connection" has raised the profile of once-neglected Viennese composer Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871-1942). He was a conducting colleague of Gustav's, and Alma's composition teacher; Arnold Schoenberg was his brother-in-law. But you won't hear these composers in these early symphonies, whose firmly traditional, post-Brahmsian idiom and rhetorical gestures contrast markedly with the Expressionism of Eine florentinische Tragödie and Zemlinsky's other operas. Only the Second Symphony's Adagio evinces some "advanced," emotionally ambiguous harmonies. Mendelssohn's graceful treble chatter is a clear influence, while Zemlinsky indulges a penchant for Wagnerian chorales as well.
The new Naxos disc recouples performances originally issued on full-priced Marco Polo in the Eighties. The three-movement First Symphony comes across well enough at Ludovit Rajter's hands: greater drive would not be amiss in the rather careful, deliberate first movement, but the central Scherzo is pointed and graceful, and once the finale gets going, it develops a nice airborne buoyancy. The more ambitious Second Symphony makes a stronger mark - the composer infuses the chorales' fervent grandeur with a softening lyricism, and a really sharp, dramatic conflict develops in the finale - and Edgar Seipenbusch does well by it. Both orchestras fill out the cantabile lines with warm, vibrant string tone; the Slovak Philharmonic in the Second boasts full-throated brass, though they "stick" rhythmically against the tremolo strings on several occasions, and the last tempo change in the first movement takes a few bars to settle. The full, vivid sound has the mild reverberant overhang typical of the initial run of Marco Polo productions. Definitely worth getting to know.
Stephen Francis Vasta