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RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS - Sinfonia Antartica - Four Last Songs - Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra - Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra - Sir Andrew Davis (Conductor) - Hybrid SACD - 095115518625 - Released: October 2017 - Chandos CHSA5186

When this projected Chandos series of recordings of all the Vaughan Williams Symphonies started roughly about twenty years ago or so, I was the manager of a classical music department within a record shop, and I clearly remember being asked on a regular basis by the customers purchasing these recordings as to when the subsequent volume in the series was being released, and if I could hold a copy for them when it came in. Well, I don't think that anyone anticipated the project to take this long to come to an end, but as they say: good things come to those who wait. No one had foreseen that the premature death of conductor Richard Hickox who launched the series would have curtailed the projected cycle for so long, but as with all major undertakings, these things take concerted effort and planning on the part of everyone involved. Thanks to conductor Sir Andrew Davis recently filling the void, the cycle is now complete.

Let me just say to those collectors that were there from the start that your patience has been rewarded with a wonderfully spacious and atmospheric account and recording that well captures the essence of the profoundly enigmatic Sinfonia Antartica (No. 7) by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). The inclusion of a wordless solo soprano and female chorus, xylophone, harp, and wind machine within the first movement all helps convey the deep sense of icy desolation, remote loneliness and epic grandeur of this vast continent. There's a mysterious quality to the music here that defies categorization. By then, Vaughan Williams had come a long way since his 'London Symphony' for example, and was now a full-fledged symphonist in the true sense of the word. The slow third movement reinforces the vivid imagery of this never-changing landscape of shifting snow, biting cold and blinding brightness. The sudden appearance of a full pipe organ within the movement adds to the weight of the music and enhances the sheer scope of this bleak landscape, turning caverns into cathedrals of ice. The power of the music here is as implacable as the imperturbable and stoic nature of the land it portrays. The fifth and final movement sees the return of the work's main theme, the wind machine, and the wordless female chorus calling out to you like spectral mermaids beckoning you to your icy grave, whilst the wind fades away in the distance. It all leaves an indelible haunting impression on your mind.

This recording also features the Four Last Songs and the Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra. The songs, composed between 1954 and 1958, are set to poems by his wife Ursula Vaughan Williams and were first performed posthumously in a version for voice and piano. On this recording we hear the recently orchestrated version by Anthony Payne. They are intimate and tender songs befittingly interpreted here by baritone Roderick Williams. The Concerto, originally written for one piano in 1931, is a robust, energetic and highly rhythmic affair that proved too taxing for the soloist at its 1933 première. It was reconsidered and arranged in a new version for two pianos during the 1940s by pianist Joseph Cooper. This new arrangement was fully endorsed by the composer, although to Cooper's surprise, Vaughan Williams completely reworked the ending of the final movement following its initial performance. The final few minutes are quiet and enigmatic. The two soloists in this recording are both long-standing pianists from the Chandos roster of artists. Louis Lortie and Hélène Mercier are two Canadian musicians who have collaborated on many highly well-received projects before for the label. They certainly bring out the work's nervous energy to great effect.

The Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra have released a string of over 75 recordings mostly on the Bis and Chandos labels, most of which have come highly recommended by critics and fans alike. This latest release will most certainly receive the same level of interest and reverence, especially since it also caps off a very impressive cycle.

Jean-Yves Duperron - October 2017