This two-CD collection offers a strong, masterfully performed selection of Vaughan Williams' shorter orchestral works. All the best-known pieces are here–the Tallis Fantasia, the Fantasia on Greensleeves, The Lark Ascending, Dives and Lazarus–as well as lesser-known but equally beautiful works such as the Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1, the Concerto Grosso and the Oboe Concerto. Disc One is devoted to performances by Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; on Disc Two, Barry Wordsworth and the New Queen's Hall Orchestra take over, except for one selection–the fiercely dramatic Partita for Double String Orchestra–performed by Sir Adrian Boult and the London Philharmonic. I did not think there could be a more beautiful performance of The Lark Ascending than the one by Boult and Hugh Bean, but the recording here by Marriner and Iona Brown is at very least its equal. For anyone who loves the music of Vaughan Williams, or for anyone who wants to get acquainted with this great and underrated composer, this double-CD set is a must.
Elgar’s Violin Concerto has a certain mystique about it independent of the knee-jerk obeisance it has received in the British press. It probably is the longest and most difficult of all Romantic violin concertos, requiring not just great technical facility but great concentration from the soloist and a real partnership of equals with the orchestra. And like all of Elgar’s large orchestral works, it is extremely episodic in construction and liable to fall apart if not handled with a compelling sense of the long line. In reviewing the score while listening to this excellent performance, I was struck by just how fussy Elgar’s indications often are: the constant accelerandos and ritards, and the minute (and impractical) dynamic indications that ask more questions than they sometimes answer. No version, least of all the composer’s own, even attempts to realize them all: it would be impossible without italicizing and sectionalizing the work to death.