Best known for his orchestral music and songs, Ralph Vaughan Williams (RVW) is not immediately associated with music for the piano (with the exception of the piano part of his song cycle On Wenlock Edge. But this new disc from SOMM demonstrates his skill and imagination when writing for this instrument.
Mark Bebbington, a champion of British piano music, is renowned for bringing lesser known or rarely-heard repertoire to light and this disc contains the first recording of the Introduction and Fugue for two pianos, written in 1947 and dedicated it to the famous two-piano team Phyllis Sellick and Cyril Smith. It is a work of Bachian polyphony, carefully-crafted counterpoint, rich orchestral textures and echoes of Debussy and Ravel in some of the filigree passagework, as well as English folksong idioms. There are even hints of Messiaen in some of the harmonies. It’s the most substantial work on the disc and is handled with precision and sensitive colouration by Bebbington and Omordia. Beautifully paced, it combines moments of exquisite delicacy contrasting with grand statements and dramatic interludes, in keeping with its Baroque model.
The other longer work on this disc is a transcription for two pianos of the ever-popular Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, arranged by Maurice Jacob and Vaughan Williams. In this version it has a spareness which allows interior details to come to the fore and is more intimate than its orchestral cousin. The sparser textures reveal the Renaissance harmonies more clearly, reminding us of the inspiration for this work.
The rest of the disc is occupied with short works, including the Fantasia on Greensleeves (also recorded for the first time), A Little Piano Book and the Suite of 6 Short Pieces, works for junior piano students, which although miniature in scale reveal so many of the attributes of RVW’s musical language and innate lyricism which make his work so enduring and popular. But these are not mere trifles: the slower movements are reflective, tinged with melancholy.
The opening track, The Lake in the Mountains, also written for Phyllis Sellick, proved to be RVW’s last work for solo piano. Haunting and mysterious, it is a piece of great charm and is thoroughly pianistic in its structure and serene character.
Complete Piano Music by Ralph Vaughan Williams
The Lake in the Mountains for solo piano
Introduction and Fugue for two pianos *
‘Ach bleib’ bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ’ JS Bach BVW 649 arr. Vaughan Williams for solo piano
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis for two pianos (arranged by Maurice Jacobson and Vaughan Williams)
Hymn Tune Prelude on ‘Song 13’ (Orlando Gibbons) for solo piano
Fantasia on Greensleeves – Piano duet — adapted from the Opera ‘Sir John in Love’ *
A Little Piano Book (solo piano)
Suite of Six Short Pieces for piano solo
Mark Bebbington solo piano
Mark Bebbington & Rebeca Omordia, two pianos/piano puet
* World Premiere Recordings
Comprehensive liner notes by Robert Matthew-Walker
This article first appeared on our sister site The Cross-Eyed Pianist