The English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams tends not to be known for his chamber music. The chamber compositions section on the Wikipedia list of his works is relatively modest. On the other hand it begins at the end of the nineteenth century, after he had completed his studies at the Royal College of Music (RCM) and travelled to Berlin for further education in composition from Max Bruch, and continues all the way into the middle of the twentieth century with a violin sonata composed in 1952. At the end of last month, Naxos released a recording of four chamber works spanning from one of his earliest (1898) efforts to 1926.
The performers on this recording are the members of the London Soloists Ensemble. This is a somewhat nonstandard quintet consisting of violinist Lorraine McAslan, violist Sarah-Jane Bradley, cellist Karine Georgian, pianist John Lenehan, and clarinetist Anthony Pike. The major works are two quintets, which are also nonstandard in their instrumentation. The 1898 quintet, in the key of D major, is scored for violin, cello, clarinet, horn (guest artist Tim Jackson), and piano. The other quintet, composed in 1903 with subsequent revisions in 1904 and 1905, follows the instrumentation of Franz Schubert’s D. 667 (“Trout”) piano quintet, substituting a bass (guest artist Chris West) for the second violin. There is also the 1926 set of six studies on English folk songs, composed for cello or piano with versions for clarinet, violin, and viola, performed on this recording by clarinetist Pike. Finally, there is a composition not in the Wikipedia list taken from an undated manuscript and edited for publication by Bernard Shore and Eric Gritton in 1962. This is a “Romance” for viola and piano, which may have been intended for violist Lionel Tertis, for whom Vaughan Williams composed his 1925 “Flos Campi” and his 1934 suite for viola and small orchestra. However, the style of this undated piece resembles neither or these more familiar compositions.
Indeed, only the folk song settings are likely to resonate with familiarity among those who have come to know Vaughan Williams through his instrumental and vocal repertoire. The 1898 quintet seems to be informed by a respectful appreciation of the chamber music of Johannes Brahms (who incorporated both clarinet and horn in his own chamber works), although it is clear that Vaughan Williams was trying to find a voice of his own distinct from his RCM experiences with Charles Villiers Stanford and Hubert Parry or those Berlin studies with Bruch. The “not-the-Trout” quintet, on the other hand, is in no way indebted to Schubert, although those acquainted with the chamber music of Stanford’s colleague Edward Elgar are likely to encounter a ring of familiarity here and there.
Most important, however, is the technically sound approach that the performers on this album have taken in bringing music that is seldom performed, particularly in this country, into a favorable light.