Visions of Albion

Barbican Hall, London

The enormous success of Richard Hickox's Vaughan Williams cycle at the Barbican a year ago alerted us to the fact that the lean years were over as far as live performances of the composer's symphonies were concerned. Record catalogues would seem to indicate that there had always been a very healthy sub-culture surrounding Vaughan Williams's music, but the record industry doesn't always connect with concert promotion, and the packed audiences Hickox drew were most encouraging.

Following this initiative, Hickox is launching another festival of the composer's music, "Vision of Albion", in which an aspect of his output that has not always received its due - his operatic work - is being focused. It has always seemed shameful, for instance, that the ballad-opera Hugh the Drover has not entered the repertory of one of our major opera companies. It should hold a place in the hearts of the British opera-going public similar to that held by Smetana's The Bartered Bride in the Czech Republic. Its sturdy people's choruses, the entrancing tunefulness of its solo songs and the powerfully romantic urgency of its love music deserve no less.

Fearing, no doubt, that the opera would not easily make its way on the English stage, Vaughan Williams devised a shortened version of the work for concert performance, under the title A Cotswold Romance. He aimed it at choral societies and rearranged a lot of the writing accordingly, even transcribing the opera's most famous solo item, Hugh's "Song of the Road" into full choral texture, and using the chorus at other points in the love duet.

The resulting cantata is rich in melody and rescues some of the finest music the composer wrote, but there is something a little dislocated about the dramatic narrative shape of the piece, and lovers of the opera will always find elements of the makeshift in it. Hickox secured a vigorous performance of the piece and the London Philharmonic Choir made a rousing contribution, but there was at times a certain lack of textural refinement, and the London Symphony Orchestra's heavy brass dominated unduly. This occasionally made life difficult for the soloists who had to struggle to establish their lines against the fuller textures. Still, Susan Gritton, a last-minute substitute as Mary, sang with ideal warmth and style, while Matthew Brook's baritone was freshly projected. Thomas Randall's Hugh lacked the necessary ringing, open-air quality, but was characterised with ardour.

Earlier, there had been a run-of-the-mill performance of the overture "The Wasps", but the concert ended with a strongly projected reading of the London Symphony. Again, the brass seemed to play a little too loudly at climaxes, but this was a commanding interpretation, encompassing the widely ranging style from vernacular to darkly impressionistic with passion and conviction.

Anthony Payne

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