Classical CD Reviews

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Piano Concerto in C; The Wasps (suite); English Folk Song Suite – Ashley Wass, p./ Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orch./ James Judd – Naxos

A beautiful recording of some vastly enjoyable music.

Published on November 13, 2012

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Piano Concerto in C; The Wasps (suite); English Folk Song Suite – Ashley Wass, p./ Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orch./ James Judd – Naxos

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Piano Concerto in C; The Wasps (suite); English Folk Song Suite (Arr. Gordon Jacob) – Ashley Wass, p./ Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orch./ James Judd – Naxos 8.572304, 69:37 ****:

Ralph Vaughan Williams consciously set about to deny the undue influence of European music in his work and as a natural result turned homeward, especially to the English folk song, of which his many works are inundated. But his studies, aside from such British stalwarts as Hubert Parry and Charles Stanford, also took him down a very French road with Maurice Ravel, and many of the things he picked up there have not always been noticed in his music. Particularly in the Piano Concerto, often played as a later-arranged two piano piece but here performed as originally intended, we hear a lot of Ravel; just listen to the percussive third movement Fuga and dare to deny the influence of the Ravel Piano Concerto! The modalisms, Bartokian percussiveness, and stringent, surprisingly acerbic dissonances all find a place in the French composer even though his basic model is quite different from the more drawn-out and even more well-developed work of the Englishman. It packs quite a wallop and should be far more welcome on today’s well-worn concert stages. The work gives immeasurable pleasure.

The Wasps (Aristophanic Suite) was done for a Cambridge production of the play by Aristophanes, a satiric tale of the Athenian legal system where those deciding verdicts—the Wasps—get paid according to how long they deliberate. We don’t often hear the whole thing, the delightful overture having commanded pride of place in concert halls, but everything in this work, fully replete with his then well-established Englishness, is a marvel to the ear. The English Folk Song Suite was originally conceived for wind band, and hardly a member of any school band in the United States is unfamiliar with this piece, one of the staples of the genre. The Running Set is a brief six-minute work derived from a dance still performed “in parts of the United States”. The original seems to have been lost and so Vaughan Williams created a long dance comprised of several folk songs associated with the dance.

Pianist Ashley Wass is apparently the first pianist that Naxos has exclusively contracted, and his playing has garnered a lot of enthusiasm, winner of the First Prize of the London International Piano Competition (the only Brit to have done this) and a former BBC New Generation artist. His playing is suitably rugged when need be, negotiating the many technical hurdles that Vaughan Williams places in the way, yet able to reduce the size and scope needed to present the many lovely and quietly informative passages as well. James Judd is well known, one of the best conductors around, and the Royal Liverpool Band plays with suavity and a lot of tonal beauty. A very enjoyable disc indeed, recorded in Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall with great clarity and depth.

—Steven Ritter




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