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Reviews > Visual arts >

‘Rhosymedre’ as you’ve never heard it before

Garry Humphreys enjoys a festival for Vaughan Williams

THIS YEAR’s celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the death of Ralph Vaughan Williams are many and various, from the Proms — at which no fewer than five of his symphonies will be heard, together with the Piano Concerto, Job, and several other works, including one concert devoted entirely to his music — to the many local churches where some of his hymn tunes will be sung.

Vaughan Williams would, I feel, have approved of this, and regarded each instance to be as worthy as any other; for he was nothing if not a composer for the people. As Richard Morrison has written, “Music should be a communal act that embraces everyone. That was Vaughan Williams’s philosophy. In ordinary people, he glimpsed the divine.”

It is Richard Morrison, chief music critic of The Times, who was the guiding light for a Vaughan Williams weekend earlier this month at St Mary’s, Hendon, in north-west London, where he is the organist and director of music. That increasingly rare phenomenon, a weekly choral evensong on Sundays, still survives there, and there is an ambitious programme of concerts, given by the church choir and by visiting artists. The choir is enviably talented, including Mr Morrison’s opposite number from The Daily Telegraph among its members.

The festival began on the Friday evening with a performance by the Mellstock Band, whose inspiration derives from the novels of Thomas Hardy and his many references to music. Their programme, “The Village Philharmonic”, appropriately for the occasion, looks at the adaptation of traditional tunes by classical composers and, conversely, how rural tradition has reshaped music from the classical repertoire. I was unable to attend this event, but the audience was still talking about it at the concert the following evening.

At lunchtime on the Saturday there was a programme of British wind-band music — from Vaughan Williams’s English Folk Song Suite to the theme music from Wallace and Gromit — played by pupils from Queen Elizabeth’s School, Barnet. Then in the evening came the centrepiece of this little festival, a concert by the Fitwilliam String Quartet with the tenor James Gilchrist and the pianist Anna Tilbrook.

In each half of the programme the major works were Vaughan Williams’s Second String Quartet and the song cycle On Wenlock Edge, each preceded by a selection of songs for voice and piano, introduced by Mr Gilchrist.

On Wenlock Edge is heard often enough; the Second String Quartet is something of a rarity — the Fitzwilliams were playing it in public for the first time. The dedication is “For Jean on her birthday”, and Vaughan Williams regarded this as a subtitle that must always be printed on programmes when the work is played. “Jean” was Jean Stewart (1914-2002), the viola player in the Menges Quartet — who gave the first performance at the National Gallery in October 1944 — and one of the most distinguished British viola players of her generation.

The viola begins each of the four movements unaccompanied, and takes the lead melodically for much of the time, and it was a joy to hear Alan George’s wonderful playing of this inherently English instrument, for which Vaughan Williams always writes such grateful music, as it was to read his perceptive programme notes for this work.

All the performers came together for On Wenlock Edge, a work they recorded last year, “a wonderfully imaginative account”, according to one reviewer. Mr Gilchrist’s fervent approach certainly serves this work well, and “Bredon Hill” was particularly evocative. Here, and in the other items on the programme, the work of the exceptional pianist Anna Tilbrook was a great contribution — so alert and responsive to every nuance of singer and string players.

The concert ended with a world première: an arrangement for string quartet of “Rhosymedre”, second of the Three Preludes for organ, founded on Welsh hymn-tunes. While they played, Mr Gilchrist sang the words to J. D. Edwards’s original tune (English Hymnal 303). It works. Now will Mr Morrison please give us “Bryn Calfaria” and “Hyfrydol”?

The festival ended on Sunday evening with performances by the church choir of the Mass in G minor — with poems by Hopkins, Eliot, Hardy, and Binyon read between each of the sections — and the cantata In Windsor Forest, interspersed with extracts from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. This concert opened with another rarity, Maurice Jacobson’s arrangement for two pianos of the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, played by Anna Tilbrook and Richard Morrison.

With comparatively modest means, and within a short time-span, the quintessential Englishness of this human and humane composer was defined perhaps more accurately than by the handful of familiar works by which he is more often and more narrowly judged. Congratulations to all concerned.

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