Job: A Masque for Dancing
Songs of Travel
David Adams Violin
Darius Battiwalla Organ
Neal Davies Bass-baritone
Sir Mark Elder Conductor
Hallé CD HLL 7556
Job, apart from being a marvellous score and equally marvellous piece of storytelling, is a much more important work than its relatively rare performances suggest. Between 1927 and 1930 it brought together some of the most fascinating people in the artistic life of Britain. The idea for the masque came from Geoffrey Keynes, John Maynard’s brother, who had been buying up copies of William Blake’s works since he was a student in the early years of last century.
Keynes was also best friend (and sad executor) of Rupert Brooke. Keynes and Vaughan Williams were related one way and another through the Darwin family (Charles was VW’s great uncle and Geoffrey was married to Margaret Darwin, Charles’ granddaughter). Margaret’s sister, Gwen Raverat, was an artist and she and Geoffrey devised a scenario based on eight of Blake’s illustrations to the travails of the prophet Job and approached her cousin VW for the music. And so the connections went on.
The music was performed first, at the Norwich Festival, but the next year it reached London in its dance form, choreographed by Ninette de Valois who was trying to set up a professional company in London for the first time (Job was seen at the Cambridge Theatre in Covent Garden but the company soon moved to Sadler’s Wells and eventually, helped by John Maynard Keynes, to the Royal Opera House, where it became the Royal Ballet). Satan was danced by the 27 year-old Anton Dolin (who, many years later, helped start London Festival Ballet), fresh from Diaghilev’s Ballets Russe, and the production, designed by Gwen Raverat, was conducted by Constant Lambert. Geoffrey Keynes was extremely proud of his contribution, as he told me at his home near Newmarket surrounded by the Blake pictures 50 years later, and it remains one of my big ‘wish I’d been there’ occasions.
Mark Elder’s new recording with the Hallé is a fine and thoughtful account, more symphonic poem than dance sequence, and he captures the feeling of moving between the Blake tableaux, from the lyrical sensuality of the Saraband for the Sons of God to the slimy saxophone that accompanies Satan. Despite its origin for the theatre, this is a big orchestra score, with VW elevating the essentially domestic story to universal parable. The brass barks and explodes, the organ blazes, the strings are sumptuous, the winds incisive and liquid in turn. Elder understands VW’s close relationship with Ravel in those years. This is a thoroughly rewarding reading.
I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the performance of the Songs of Travel but Noel Davies is just not right for these songs. They need the rich variation and colour that John Shirley-Quirk and Sir Thomas Allen brought to them. Davies has an irritatingly tremulous voice and is, oddly for a bass-baritone, too light in tone. His diction is also out of the chewy school of oratorio soloists; such a pity because these songs are worth much better.