Vaughan Williams, Howells, Delius, Elgar: Music for Strings (Chandos)
Talk a walk any time of year in England’s green and pleasant and, unless you’re very lucky, you will soon sink up to the shinbone in what is known as a cowpat. These things are so prevalent they have even given rise to a genre of ‘cowpat music’ — works that express a quintessential Englishness with an ineradicably odiferous aftertaste. The term is usually credited to the crabby, atonal and determinedly unpopular composer Elizabeth Lutyens.
Ralph Vaughan Williams was the grand master of cowpat music, able to evoke in one line of music five centuries of timeless pastorality. His Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis can be made to sound as close to kitsch as an Ealing comedy. On the other hand, a committed conductor can tease out unsuspected shades and ripples, turning the score into something like a Turner landscape.
John Wilson has an uncanny ability to make familiar music sound fresh with his Sinfonia of London. In this compilation album, he delivers a compelling reading of the Tallis Fantasia and an even more imposing account of Edward Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for strings — the most illuminating I have heard since the overwhelming John Barbirolli recording a good 60 years ago. How Wilson gets his violins to sound at one moment like a string quartet and the next like a church organ is one of the mysteries of musical transmission. On this form, he has the best strings sound in Britain.
In between the two masterpieces are a concerto for string orchestra by Herbert Howells (whose estate subsidised this album) and an impressionistic essay on Late Swallows by Frederick Delius. Neither has legs enough to support a tea table, but the outer works are simply magnificent — not to be missed.
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