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Ralph Vaughan Williams masterpiece is no more than interesting


Ralph Vaughan Williams, "The Piano Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams" performed by pianists Mark Bebbington and Rebecca Omordia (Somm)

Wait a minute. You mean to say there's an important body of piano music written by one of the most beloved of all 20th century composers, whose Symphonies, "Greensleeves" and Thomas Tallis fantasias, "The Lark Ascending' and many other works are some of the most justifiably popular works in concert halls and on record?

That's the case this disc is definitely trying to make.

As Robert Matthew-Walker puts it in his notes, RVW's compositions for piano "contain two absolute masterpieces for solo piano, 'The Lake in the Mountains' and the 'Choral and Choral Prelude' with the "Hymn Tune Prelude on Song XIII' and 'the Suite of Six Short Pieces' being only just below this exceptional standard.

Vaughan Williams's music for duo pianists is even smaller in output but contains one-demonstrably great work--the 'Introduction and Fugure' for Two Pianos."  The latter is being given its first recording on this disc. It is interesting, to be sure, but no more than that. Nor is the Tallis Fantasia adaptation that RVW created with Maurice Jacobson anything more than a futile attempt to bring to the piano keyboard music that is almost always used to show off the gorgeous string orchestra sound of the world's great orchestras. In that sense, it's a bit like a smart phone photograph of a painting by Constable.

This is RVW at his most post-Debussyan and post-Ravelian (remember that RVW, already mature and accomplished, briefly lost it when he became Ravel's student and was asked to write a piece "in the style of Mozart.") If, as it seems, the disc is trying to prove that RVW was a major composer for the piano and, therefore, worthy of showing up wholesale in recitals and on record, it is woefully unconvincing.

It is full of decently-played minor keepsake music and a truly great 20th century composer. Listening to these is like buying unmemorable souvenirs at the gift shop of one of the world's great museums. It proves that he's a composer owned lock, stock and barrel by string orchestras and full orchestras. The novelty of the music makes it interesting but no more than that.

3 stars (out of four)

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