Melba Recordings, whose home is in Melbourne, are coming up with some really excellent and original recordings, and the latest – Arcadia Lost – is no exception. Leaning back in time to what now seems a lost age of innocence before the First World War it presents works by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten. Presented in the original version, Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem was for some years thought to be lost, but the manuscript was recently discovered in Japan (having been commissioned in celebration of the 2,600 anniversary of the imperial dynasty). Privately Britten thought of it as a memorial to his mother, and it is an outbreak of grief without resolution, played with passion and insight by the Sydney Symphony under Mark Wigglesworth.
VW’s setting of Housman poems in On Wenlock Edge is also a remembrance of things past (AE Housman was above all the poet of remorseful reminiscence). The settings of some of these poems by George Butterworth, with their melancholy romanticism, have so entered the bloodstream of many admirers that VW’s ‘Is my team ploughing?’ or ‘Bredon Hill’ still tend to be a shock. The performance of the song cycle by Steve Davislim and the Hamer Quartet with Benjamin Martin is persuasive and sensitive – reinforcing the impression that it is more reminiscent of the French art song than anything else; but Vaughan Williams was in some moods the most continental of composers – indeed the joy of the disc, and a compelling reason for owning it, is an excellent performance of his Flos Campi, which as the composer once remarked people originally thought of as an innocent walk through buttercups and daisies, while it is really a highly erotic and far from ecclesiastical rumination on texts from The Song of Solomon (‘comfort me with apples, for I am sick of love’). That most beautiful of stringed instruments, the viola, opens the work in a duet with the oboe and leads into a highly sensual, lushly orchestrated piece which uses an eight-part chorus as though it were a second orchestra. Can this really be English music? Is there anywhere in the repertoire a piece remotely like this? Buy this CD!