VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Tudor Portraits; Variants of Dives & Lazarus
First heard at the 1936 Norwich Festival (at a concert which also featured the world premiere of Britten’s remarkable Our Hunting Fathers), VW’s Five Tudor Portraits find the composer at his most dazzlingly inventive, the resourceful and witty writing fitting Skelton’s words like a glove. Moreover, an irresistible humanity illuminates the most ambitious of the settings, “Jane Scroop (Her Lament for Philip Sparrow)”, which contains music as compassionate as VW ever conceived. It is a life-enhancing creation and long deserving of a first-rate digital recording. Hilary Davan Wetton’s Hyperion version (10/88 – nla) left much to be desired, so a warm welcome to Richard Hickox and his expert LSO forces on this vividly engineered new Chandos issue.
Aided by crisply disciplined, ever-willing orchestral support, the London Symphony Chorus launch themselves in splendidly lusty fashion into the ale-soaked narrative of “The Tunning of Elinor Rumming”, though the resonant acoustic rather precludes ideal clarity of diction. (At the first performance, Skelton’s racy text proved too much for the elderly Countess of Albemarle sitting on the front row, who walked out before this movement had even finished. When VW heard about this, he declared, “A pity she didn’t read the lines I didn’t set ...”) Hickox is altogether more exuberant than Willcocks in this sparkling tableau, while Jean Rigby’s characterful contribution should raise a smile. John Shirley-Quirk’s is a touching presence in “My Pretty Bess”, and the mordant, black humour of “Epitaph of John Jayberd of Diss” is effectively captured. Jane Scroop’s lament in the fourth (and surely best) movement finds these fine artists at their most perceptive. How ravishingly Hickox moulds his strings in the hushed passage following “It was proper and prest!” (from 6'24'') where the music movingly anticipates the poignancy of the closing section. Listen out, too, for the wealth of exquisitely observed woodwind detail in the enchanting funeral processional (one of VW’s most felicitous inspirations, beginning at 9'50''). The concluding “Jolly Rutterkin” goes with a swing, though Shirley-Quirk is a mite unsteady at the top of his range.
The coupling is a heart-warming, lucid and nicely flowing Dives and Lazarus, with the LSO strings producing their most lustrous tone. Willcocks’s trusty 1968 account with the Jacques Orchestra isn’t quite as rewarding, but the reissue in the British Composers series does throw in an excellent Benedicite (from the same year) for extra measure. None the less, Hickox’s account of the main offering must now be the preferred version and his CD certainly merits the investigation of VW fans everywhere.'