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The popular overture from Vaughan Williams' incidental music for Aristophanes' The Wasps introduces a suite whose mischievously witty, noble and farcical movements underline the play' satire of the Athenian legal system. A similar vivacity characterise
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'The Wasps' (subtitled 'An Aristophanic Suite') was written in 1909 for a Cambridge University production of Aristophanes' comedy, 'The Wasps', which was a satire on the Athenian legal system. The 'wasps' of the title are the judges who spent long and longer hours deciding cases because they were paid by the hour. The 'Overture' is often played independently of the Suite and is a high-humored depiction of the wasps, with buzzing strings mimicking their busy (and endless) deliberations. The first 'Entr'acte' is droll, mocking. It is followed by 'March Past the Kitchen Utensils', a scene in which a pot, cheese-grater, pestle, brazier and water-bowl testify against a dog accused of stealing some cheese and not sharing it. The second 'Entr'acte' is ceremonial and just a little pompous. The Final Tableau is a jolly, rumbustious conclusion. The whole suite is chock-full of tunes that sound like English folk songs and dances but are entirely original with Vaughan Williams. It is no wonder that this suite is a great favorite of audiences.
The 'Piano Concerto' is from 1926-1930, premièred in 1933 by Harriet Cohen with the BBC Symphony under Adrian Boult. By this time Vaughan Williams had incorporated some more modern-sounding gestures in his music and indeed there are some who liken the first movement to music by Bartók. It is a Toccata with percussive piano and brutal orchestral accompaniment that eventually gives way to a lyrical section. This movement is followed without pause by a short piano cadenza senza misura (without bar lines) which frees the pianist from rhythmic constraints, and it leads right into the emotional heart of the concerto, a wholly lovely 'Romanza', a kind of reverie that at times has a mystical quality. The concerto concludes with a two-section movement 'Fuga cromatica con finale alla tedesca' that consists of a quasi-Hindemithian fugue introduced by the brass and building to a dramatic climax leading then to a dance-like finale that, surprisingly, comes to a very quiet ending. The Concerto is a truly original work that has not been played as much as its worth might suggest. Because of its somewhat mixed reception at its première, Vaughan Williams recast it as a two-piano concerto, which enjoyed some success. In recent years, though, pianists have mostly gone back to the single piano version. It has been recorded twice by Howard Shelley but this new recording is their equal.
The 'English Folk Song Suite' was originally written in 1923 for military band. It became (and remains) a standard in wind band concerts, but in 1924 composer Gordon Jacob orchestrated it and it is probably most often heard now in that guise. The suite is replete with memorable melodies and is the sort of thing that sends you away humming. I knew a young couple who loved the music so much that they asked that the suite's first movement 'March: Seventeen Come Sunday' be played as their recessional, and a bright and optimistic thing it is. The second movement, 'Intermezzo: My Bonny Boy', is a soulful thing that features a languorous oboe solo. The 'Finale: Folks Songs from Somerset' reflects Vaughan Williams's indefatigable gathering of folk songs from all over the British Isles and is a congeries of sprightly tunes that generally bring smiles to the faces of those who hear it.
'The Running Set', which I'd never heard before, is six-and-a-half minute folk-inspired potpourri of 'traditional tunes' that have more or less died out in Britain but are still recalled in remote Appalachia. The tunes are 'Blackthorn Stick', 'Irish Reel' and 'Cock o' the North.' As it was originally written for a folk dance convention in 1933 it is exceedingly rhythmic and its good humor is infectious.
Not enough can be said about the marvelous job Judd and the Liverpudlians do with this wonderful music. Unless you already own earlier version of these works, I would urge you to please yourself by getting this terrific issue.
The standout on this CD is pianist Ashley Wass in the almost never played Piano Concerto. RVW made a mistake to redo it for two pianos. That version sounds heavy and awkward, and the muddled texture of two pianos strips the work of its appealing stabs at modernism. We are almost in the realm of the jagged, brutal opening to the Fourth Sym.at times, but in a markedly less violent vein. British critics went wild for this new recording, and one can hear why. Wass isn't virtuosic, but he has the notes under h is fingers, and at this point he owns almost sole possession of the concerto. The composer clearly paid attention to Bartok in the first movement and Rachmaninov in the rolling chords of the central Romanza, but everything has been filtered through RVW's pastoralism; he was the gentlest of moderns on all but a handful of occasions. There's almost no exploration of dissonance and much tender lyricism. I can imagine a better reading, especially a more vigorous conducting job, but this one is quite captivating. (If only RVW's finale didn't taper off in such po' face fashion.) It's a pleasure to welcome back an orphaned work that deserves a good home.
I heard the entire Aristophanic Suite on an Angel recording (LP) many years ago with another piano work of Vaughan Williams, the Fantasia on the Old 104th, Quasi Variazione, with chorus, no less, conducted by Boult. Absolutely beautiful! This production by Ashley Wass comes close to what I recall many years ago with VW's more famous and well-known Piano Concerto. Vaughan Williams undoubtedly wrote the Piano Concerto for Harriet Cohen, a very dear and talented friend of his, which must have been during the 1930s or '40s. (Please correct me if I am wrong!) As I understand it, this is the same piece of music as his Double Piano Concerto. The reason why, I have learned, that the Piano Concerto was made into the Double Piano Concerto was that someone made the comment that the single piano was drowned out by the orchestra, hence a double piano concerto needed to be written in order for the piano to be heard over the orchestra. Well, so much for trivia!
I do not think that there is much piano music by Vaughan Williams being produced these days, so this is about as good as it is going to get. The recording itself is very good, and the box and cover art are splendid and pretty, as are the helpful liner notes. Naxos has really come a long way, and this fine CD is representative of their latest efforts. Wass and Company do well in performing the music, and it is wonderful to hear some VW piano music again. When will the Fantasia on the Old 104th - Quasi Variazione with chorus resurface? Something for you performing artists (and Naxos) to think about!
It is a wonderful thing to hear the jovial Aristophanic Suite played through its entirety. On so many recordings, and even concert ventures, and, yes, I speak even about the Proms, the listener is only given the familiar "Wasps" Overture, to the extent that it is often overplayed, with the audience wishing for more to learn its complete story. This music Vaughan Williams wrote when he was an undergraduate at Cambridge to accompany Aristophanes's play "The Wasps," a cynical look at the Athenian legal system. The only thing one may conclude about this music is that this is Vaughan Williams at his youthful best. It must date from the late 1880s or early 1890s, and if one may imagine an aural Monty Pythonesque musical humor at this time, this must be it. One delightful tune is labeled "March Past of the Kitchen Utensils." I mean, is this Frank Zappa's humor a la 1890s Cambridge? You bet!
Lastly, there is the English Folk Song Suite and "The Running Set." The first is a staple of VW repertoire. "The Running Set" I am still not too familiar with, but perhaps that is for you to try out and test, also.
This may be a "must-have" for your collection, because it does contain the entire Aristophanic Suite, which is difficult to find, besides the wonderful Piano Concerto. Do I hear Ravel and the "French polish" that Vaughan Williams received while in Paris in the Concerto? Purchase it and find out for yourself! The fair Naxos pricing is reason enough!
One last pitch, since, as stated in the first paragraph, this all has a bit to do with my career as a music theorist/musicologist/critic - well, here goes: Check out my book on Amazon.com! Enter "Bradley Evans modal" and see what comes up. It should be about VW's Symphony No. 5 in D Major. Another masterpiece to contemplate!
Happy listening to VW on this fine, recent recording! See you in Albion!