Arcadia Lost

09/12/2011
Laurent Bury
Forum Opéra (France)

‘More Ravelian than Ravel’

Vaughan Williams is appreciated in France by only a handful of admirers. This situation is even worse when one considers that our country was both a trigger and a revelation in the development of the English composer.                         

After having spent three months studying with Ravel – from December 1907 to February 1908 – the young Ralph (born in 1872, he was actually three years older than his “master”) learnt to colour his orchestration in a very different fashion from what he called “Teutonic counterpoint”. The composer of Boléro saw in him “a student about whom I could boast” and he worked so that the music of Vaughan Williams would be performed in France. In February 1912 the song cycle On Wenlock Edge was performed in Paris with Ravel himself at the piano.   

While of all his disciples, Vaughan Williams was – according to Ravel – the only one who did not write music just as he did, the works presented on this disc (particularly the ones that team voice and instruments) have undeniably been written under his influence. In Flos Campi (1925) the choral interventions (limited to “Ah!”) – sometimes floating weightlessly in the atmosphere, sometimes orgiastic cries – show that Vaughan Williams must have read the score of Daphnis et Chloé very attentively and perhaps also took a quick glance at Debussy’s Sirènes. The work is comprised of six generally calm movements (lento, andante and moderato are the dominant markings…..

As when it recorded precious rarities from 19th century French repertoire, the Australian Melba label has recourse to an artist of great quality in tenor Steve Davislim. He is beginning to have a really first-rate international career. Davislim is the soloist in On Wenlock Edge, a song cycle of six poems taken from the collection A Shropshire Lad by A.E. Housman (1896). Vaughan Williams is only one of numerous British composers to have set these texts. They are located in a world dreamt up by the poet that he never saw. There are pessimistic impressions, obsessed with death (#3 ‘Is My Team Ploughing?’ which is a dialogue between a deceased young man and his friend who has survived him). This time the influence comes from Ravel’s Quartet, most notably in the evocation of the storm in the first song ‘On Wenlock Edge’. Less tense than Peter Pears, less affected than Ian Bostridge – both of whom have recorded the work before him – Steve Davilsim might fear comparisons with John Mark Ainsley, but he offers here a more operatic version, less chamber style, than that of his English colleague.       

With the programme completed by The Lark Ascending – romance for violin and orchestra inspired by another Victorian poet, George Meredith (1914) – and a great success of the young Britten – his Sinfonia da Requiem (1940) – this disc offers a very seductive journey through British music of the first half of the 20th century.