VAUGHAN WILLIAMS The Lark Ascending (Jennifer Pike)
Top billing on Naxos’s cover goes to The Lark Ascending but the main interest for RVW aficionados surrounds the first recording of the 1920 Suite of Six Short Pieces for piano. Annotator Paul Conway mentions James Brown’s arrangement for string orchestra of these unpretentious miniatures (made under the composer’s supervision and published in 1923 as the Charterhouse Suite) and rightly calls out this music’s stylistic links with the neoclassical (and, to my mind, underrated) Concerto for violin and string orchestra, which appeared in 1925; indeed, the Suite’s fourth-movement ‘Slow Air’ has something of the grace and serenity that also inhabit the concerto’s touching Adagio centrepiece.
Sina Kloke plays with agreeable discernment and assurance both here and in the early Fantasia (1896-1902, and revised two years later) – a 21-minute creation of endearing ambition and red-blooded drama, with solo writing of frequently big-boned bravura (‘Brahms meets Liszt’ would be a good description). Salvatore Di Vittorio and his Chamber Orchestra of New York tender spirited support but ultimately this newcomer is, I think, eclipsed by Mark Bebbington’s pioneering (and more accommodatingly engineered) account with George Vass and the Ulster Orchestra (Somm, 12/11).
The disc opens with the 1902 03 symphonic poem The Solent, whose memorable main theme RVW plundered for his Sea Symphony and Ninth Symphony, as well as the 1955 film score The England of Elizabeth. Di Vittorio secures a watchful rather than especially compelling rendering – Paul Daniel’s splendid RLPO version remains preferable (Albion, 11/13). In The Lark Ascending Jennifer Pike soars aloft most bewitchingly and is ably partnered by Di Vittorio and company, but the overall effect is rather too analytical for comfort (both Jean Pougnet and Hugh Bean in their vintage performances with Boult undoubtedly distil more in the way of fragrant poetry). In sum, a resourceful programme but artistically and sonically a bit of a mixed bag.