Music: Vaughan Williams and Company St John's, Smith Square, London
Music: Vaughan Williams

and Company

St John's, Smith Square, London

To mark the 40th anniversary of the death of Ralph Vaughan Williams, the Joyful Company of Singers and the English Chamber Orchestra have had the marvellous idea of putting on a three-part festival, featuring the music of the redoubtable RVW himself plus that of younger British composers whose work in some way follows on from his.

Now that the murk of post-war avantgardism has cleared, and Vaughan Williams's stature as a truly original creator has become even more apparent than it was in the past, it is at last possible for contemporary composers to admit to a liking for his music, and even to being influenced by it, in polite society. And not before time.

Proceedings were launched, appropriately, with a blast of romantic ardour and Edwardian optimism in Vaughan Williams's early Whitman setting, "Toward the Unknown Region"; although written for larger forces, this fairly small choir and orchestra under Peter Broadbent brought a fervour to the music that made it highly satisfying in effect.

Anthony Milner s "Roman Spring" suffered slightly in contrast, with its relatively astringent harmonies and freely chromatic melodic line. The Joyful Company dealt convincingly with some tricky vocal writing, and soloists Paula O'Sullivan and Eugene Ginty put a lot into their songs of love and death. This wordy cantata, which dates from 1969, features a particular sort of convoluted, not particularly memorable, musical language redolent of that period, and although there were effective touches, such as the heavy trudge of approaching mortality in Horace's Carmina IV, when it came to setting some of the most beautiful Latin verses ever written, such as the same poet's "Diffugere nives", the result was curiously perfunctory.

The bassoon concerto "Catalonia" by the late Paul Reade was given its premiere by Laurence Perkins. Reade was particularly known as a composer of music for TV and ballet, and this concerto, inspired originally by a Pyrenean festival of music and wine, demonstrated a strong sense of atmosphere and colour, to which the pleasant sound of the solo bassoon contributed.

Vaughan Williams's rarely performed "Oxford Elegy", a haunting and poignant work, shot through with an almost unbearable note of nostalgia, was given a most moving rendition, with Gabriel Woolf's speaking voice superbly audible if a trifle declamatory, over the sound of choir and orchestra. The septuagenarian composer's evocation of the idealism of youth and of pastoral idyll in a long-lost Victorian countryside contains moments of such ravishing beauty that it is easy to miss registering the quite surprising modal harmonies and bitonal passages so characteristic of RVW's understated modernism.

His rollicking "Benedicite" of 1929, with colourful contributions from Paula O'Sullivan and solo flute (Wiliam (sic) Bennett) brought the programme to a rousing conclusion. More please.

Laurence Hughes