VAUGHAN WILLIAMS The Lark Ascending (15’)
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Concerto for Oboe and Strings (19’)
RAVEL Sonatine for piano (12’)
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Piano Quintet in C minor (30’)
Celebrating the 150th birthday of the celebrated composer who embodies the sound of English music. The evening opens with Vaughan Williams’ most famous work, The Lark Ascending, recently voted No.1 in the Classic FM Hall of Fame for a record 12th time, in its original version for piano and violin. This is followed by his Concerto for Oboe and Strings, the compact Sonatine by the composer’s friend and mentor Maurice Ravel, and the evening concludes with his expansive Quintet.
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Ralph, The Lark Ascending
Vaughan Williams began The Lark Ascending before the outbreak of the First World War, taking his inspiration from George Meredith’s 1881 poem of the same name. But he set this ‘Romance’ aside during the war and only finished it in 1920. The violinist Marie Hall gave the first performance of the original version for violin and piano in Shirehampton Public Hall (a district of Bristol) on 15 December 1920. Vaughan Williams dedicated the work to her, and she went on to give the premiere of the orchestral version six months later, when it was conducted by the young Adrian Boult at a concert in the Queen’s Hall in London. Free, serene and dream-like, this is idyllic music of rare and fragile beauty.
© Nigel Simeone
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Ralph, Concerto for Oboe and Strings
Minuet and Musette
Vaughan Williams started to compose his oboe concerto in 1943, immediately after the Fifth Symphony, and it was completed in 1944. His friend and biographer Michael Kennedy wrote that ‘a discarded scherzo from the symphony was turned into part of the oboe concerto’, and he described it as a ‘satellite work’ to the symphony. It was written for the oboist Léon Goossens and the premiere was planned for the 1944 Proms. That concert was cancelled due to the risk of flying-bombs over London and Goossens gave the first performance in Liverpool on 30 September 1944.
The bucolic first movement – an unconventional rondo – is marked Allegro moderato and it uses both the oboe’s spiky agility and its lyrical capabilities, with short cadenzas near the start and finish. In his book on Vaughan Williams, Frank Howes noted that the Minuet and Musette was ‘wayward in its key scheme’ and described the whole movement as ‘pseudo-classical’ in character. The central ‘Musette’ section is based on drones, played by the oboe. Headed ‘Finale (Scherzo)’, the last movement is predominantly very fast, but perhaps the highlight of the whole Concerto is the slower central section, the soloist musing over richly-harmonised string chords, before a return of the fast material and a quiet, sustained close.
© Nigel Simeone
RAVEL Maurice, Sonatine
Mouvement de menuet
Ravel composed his Sonatine in 1903–5, just after finishing the String Quartet and the song-cycle Shéhérazade. After several fruitless attempts to win the Prix de Rome, Ravel finally decided that he should pursue his own musical path, and the Sonatine was one of the first results – a work of great refinement, on a much smaller scale than the piano cycle Miroirs that he worked on at the same time.
Ravel’s title evokes something of the elegance of the Classical period, though from the very start it is obvious that Ravel is not attempting any kind of pastiche. Even so, the first movement is in a clearly defined sonata form. The opening presents a singing theme in octaves with a shimmering accompaniment in the inner parts. The second theme is gentler, supported by typically luminous harmonies. The Minuet is a graceful dance, and the finale is driven by the almost omnipresent rapid notes heard at the start of the movement. There are moments of repose, but the movement surges to a flamboyant conclusion.
Ravel dedicated the Sonatine to his friends Ida and Cipa Godebski. The premiere was given in Lyon on 10 March 1906 by Mme Paule de Lestaing, and first performed in Paris on 31 March 1906, by Gabriel Grovlez.
© Nigel Simeone
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Ralph, Quintet in C minor for violin, viola, cello, double bass and piano
Allegro con fuoco
Fantasia, quasi variazioni
This Quintet in C minor, scored for the same instrumentation as Schubert’s Trout, was composed in 1903 and revised twice before the first performance at the Aeolian Hall on 14 December 1905, but after a performance in 1918 it was withdrawn by Vaughan Williams. It was finally published in an edition by Bernard Benoliel a century after its composition. Vaughan Williams’s friend and biographer Michael Kennedy speaks of ‘the shadow of Brahms looming over’ the work, and this seems especially true of the expansive first movement. The expressive, romantic melody of the Andante second movement is more characteristic of its composer at this stage in his career, and it has some similarity to the song Silent Noon, composed the same year. The finale is a set of five variations, ending with a beautiful bell-like coda.
As Michael Kennedy observes, what matters with an early work such as this is not whether it anticipates Vaughan Williams’s later masterpieces (for the most part, it doesn’t), but that it is impressive in its own right. He does, however, make an intriguing observation: ‘Vaughan Williams may have withdrawn the Quintet but he did not forget it, for in 1954 he used the theme of the finale, slightly expanded, for the variations in the finale of his Violin Sonata.’
© Nigel Simeone