How many larks, I wonder, have echoed through the skies during this, Ralph Vaughan Williams' 150th anniversary year, filling concert halls around the country with his musical depiction of George Meredith’s “silver chain of sound” from the poem The Lark Ascending? It must surely amount to dozens by now – but I’d be willing to wager that few have taken the “chirrup, whistle, slur and shake” quite so vividly and literally as exceptional young Australian violinist Emily Sun did in her performance with pianist Tim Horton in this excellent Ensemble 360 concert in Sheffield.

Emily Sun
© Musica Viva

Unlike orchestral concert treatments in which the violin is supported by a soft blanket of strings, this rendition of the original violin-and-piano version threw an intense spotlight on the violin; the piano part, played by Horton with compelling understatement, is an unobtrusive landscape of simple modal harmonies, which means the violin, “ever winging up and up”, is our sole focus for much of the work. Vaughan Williams’ popularity – it’s not for nothing that The Lark Ascending has topped Classic FM's Hall of Fame for most of the last decade – ensured that this event was completely sold out weeks beforehand, and the packed crowd was mesmerised by Sun’s spiralling, blossoming cadenza-like performance.

Emily Sun was in fact a very last-minute replacement for Ensemble 360’s indisposed first violin, Benjamin Nabarro, and though one might expect her to have The Lark Ascending in her repertoire, it must have been a steep learning curve to accommodate the other two Vaughan Williams works in the concert, the Concerto for Oboe and Strings and the early Piano Quintet in C minor. The former, played here by the strings with a single instrument to a part, featured Ensemble 360’s long-term oboist, Adrian Wilson, as the eloquent and liquidly fluent soloist. This wartime piece, first performed in 1944, is a kind of off-cut from the miraculous Fifth Symphony, and if it never quite reaches the heights of that masterpiece it is nevertheless a joyous and entirely characteristic work. Wilson played it with love and affection for its innocent pastoral charm.

Adrian Wilsom
© Kaupo Kikkas

Vaughan Williams studied with Maurice Ravel for three months in 1907–08, an intensive schedule which, Vaughan Williams claimed, helped to free him from the “heavy, contrapuntal Teutonic manner” of his early compositional career – and, perhaps, to give his later work the sheen of a little French polish. Whatever the truth of that, after Horton had given an elegant and graceful performance of Ravel’s classically cool but consistently virtuoso Sonatine, the concert concluded with Vaughan Williams’ 1903 Piano Quintet, a work which might not necessarily reveal heavy contrapuntal Teutonic qualities, but one in which the influence of Brahms was there for all to hear, especially at the outset.

Apart from the first movement’s gentle second subject and the theme for the finale’s set of variations, one might be hard pressed to hear much of the mature Vaughan Williams in this piece at all. After a run-through in 1918 it was withdrawn, and it was not until 1999 that it was performed again, being finally published four years later. It won a deserved ovation here. All the performers excelled, but particular credit should go to double bassist David Stark, a foundational presence throughout, but displaying, in some of his solo lines, a rich, singing tone. On the basis of this performance, this work (which shares the same scoring as Schubert’s Trout Quintet and could therefore readily partner it in concert) should become part of the core chamber music repertoire. 

****1