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A POTPOURRI :Music by Elgar and Vaughan Williams

The MHS Review 410, VOL. 12, NO.14• 1988

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Richard Carlin


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Although not separated greatly by years, Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934 and Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) represent two distinct sides of the English musical--and cultural­--personality. Elgar harks back to the Vic­torian era, when England was a great world power, and his work encapsules the romantic grandeur of Britain's greatest achievements. Perhaps no piece captures this vision more completely than the "Pomp and Circumstance" march, one of the most often perform­ed works in the world. Vaughan Williams is a 20th-century man, who takes a nostalgic look backwards to England's folk heritage, but also recognizes the new realities of 20th­-century life. Musically, his work is sparer and subtler than Elgar's; socially, this reflects a coming to terms with England's changing destiny in our time.

This record offers a potpourri of works by both composers, giving a good introduction to the variety of their musical expression. The record opens with two string works from two phases of Elgar's career. We hear the early Sur­sum corda (op. 11), composed for the Duke of York's visit to Elgar's hometown of Worcester on April 4, 1894. Composed for strings, two trumpets, four horns, three trombones, timpani, and organ, the work shows Elgar's ability to compose "incidental" music that goes beyond the incident itself. His impressive handling of the strings shows how he could create deep emotions from seemingly simple melodies and harmonies. Sospiri, or "sighs," composed in 1914, shows the mature composer at work, masterfully manipulating the ensemble of strings, harp, and organ. Here a delicate beauty replaces the grandeur and pomposity of the ceremonial works.

The record also features selections from Elgar's theatrical work. The Minuet from Beau Brummel was composed as incidental music for a stage play first presented in 1928. In this work, Elgar sought to return to the innocence of 19th-century England, and he does so with his characteristic capability to evoke an era through powerful emo­tions. Of particular interest is the frag­ment from The Spanish Lady, an opera that Elgar planned but never completed. Again, Elgar's work is strongly dramatic, in its ability to conjure character and set­ting and also to convey feeling.

Vaughan Williams is represented by a number of unusual works, three of which have never appeared on record before. The first recording premiere is the Overture to The Poisoned Kiss, an unusual amalgam of music and spoken dialogue that Williams composed to a text by Evelyn Sharp (the sister of Cecil Sharp, folklorist; Vaughan Williams had worked with him in collecting many of Britain's traditional folksongs). In the Overture, Vaughan Williams fondly recalls the Victorian melodrama, loving­ly recreating, with a touch of irony, the world of 19th-century romance.

Two hymn preludes show another side of Vaughan Williams' personality. Scored for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, and strings, the works are ar­rangements of 19th-century composi­tions. Again, we are privileged to see how Vaughan Williams reshapes the 19th-century aesthetic into something new.

Finally, the delightful Running Set (never previously recorded) and Sea Songs show Vaughan Williams' facility with reshaping traditional folk material. Here the British heritage is celebrated, while at the same time the composer seems to be looking wistfully over his shoulder at a simpler time when music really could play a central role in his country's culture.

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