The Spin Doctor Europadisc's Weekly Column

Bringing Vaughan Williams to new audiences: An interview with Midori Komachi

  28th June 2022

28th June 2022

There’s no doubt that among this year’s musical anniversaries, the sesquicentenary of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s birth ranks high for many performers and audiences. The ever-popular Lark Ascending, the symphonies, orchestral fantasias, choral works and song settings will be well-represented, but among the more enterprising musicians exploring RVW’s musical legacy is violinist Midori Komachi. In partnership with experienced pianist Simon Callaghan, she is releasing an album containing all of the composer’s works for violin and piano. As Midori herself says, ‘the whole disc comes to 60 minutes in total, so it’s an ideal length for an album.’

When we caught up with her for an online interview to coincide with the disc’s release, she was in her native Japan, but she points out that ‘I’ve lived in London for 20 years now, much longer than I’ve lived in Japan, so I feel that London is my home.’ She studied in the Swiss city of Basel before making her solo debut with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra under Howard Griffiths, and then at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Now studying for a PhD at Goldsmiths’ College, she has made a particular specialism of British composers like Delius, Vaughan Williams, Rawsthorne, Rebecca Clarke and Paul Patterson.

So what was it that drew her to focus on British music? ‘I didn’t quite know the works of British composers until my postgraduate years at the Academy, which I guess is quite late if you think about the whole music training of musicians – we start at such a young age. I didn’t know anything about the works of British composers until pretty much the second year of postgraduate. But I was naturally drawn to that kind of musical style because I felt something really familiar. I discovered that even more when I started researching, but I think the first composer I became interested in was Delius. Delius isn’t really a “British” composer: the musical content is so infused by so many different influences that you cannot pin him down as composing “British” music as such. But because Delius was such an interesting human being, with such a fascinating life story, I naturally grew interested in all the composers who interacted during his time.’

That interest extended to making a Japanese translation (published in 2017) of Eric Fenby’s seminal 1936 memoir Delius as I Knew Him. As well as having a flourishing solo career, Midori is also an accomplished composer and writer, so this was a natural extension of her talents. She has since co-translated a Japanese edition of Simon Heffer’s study of Vaughan Williams, to be published this October. As a performer, she says, ‘Vaughan Williams was an obvious next step for me, because I’m a violinist and The Lark Ascending is one of the most performed pieces in the UK. I was given some opportunities to play it and really grew to love it so much that I wanted to research a lot more. At the same time I also started performing British works in Japan, because I thought British music is something people would be really interested in. People in Japan generally are very interested in British culture, but I realised that there weren’t enough resources available about British music in Japan, and I think that was one of the reasons why it doesn’t get performed as often as composers like Beethoven and Brahms, the music of Germany or France for example. So I tried to find out what Japanese people would like, programming all these rare pieces in recitals in Japan, and discovered that people really liked this style.’

The reasons behind this emerging attraction are rather surprising. ‘A lot of Japanese folk songs and children’s songs that we are taught when we’re young are actually English folk songs. Around the 1890s, Japan started to become aware of western music and wanted to incorporate it as part of education in Japan, but western music is something totally different from Japanese traditional music. And they thought, well okay, if we wanted to introduce western music, we can’t just begin with Beethoven because people wouldn’t understand it. Let’s first start with something that sounds a little bit more familiar to us. So they started looking for folk songs which used the same scale or mode as Japanese music. Japanese music is often written on pentatonic scales, and the first folk song they introduced was Auld lang syne, which uses the same mode as many Japanese songs. They put Japanese lyrics to it, with a completely different meaning, but we all know it as a song we grew up with. It’s not just Auld lang syne, there are a couple of others that have been put to Japanese lyrics and people know them as Japanese songs. A lot of Japanese people are not aware that these songs are originally English music, so when they hear English folk songs they think, “Oh, this is a Japanese folk song!”’

From there, it’s but a small step to Vaughan Williams, whose musical output is so steeped in his early activities as one of the foremost collectors of British folk music. And that folk flavour permeates Midori’s new album, which includes not only The Lark Ascending in its less widely recorded version for violin and piano, but also the violin version of the Six Studies in English Folk-Song (1926), and the Romance and Pastorale (c.1912–14). The latter work was composed for Vaughan Williams’s friend and colleague Dorothy Longman, who played for the composer at the Leith Hill Music Festival, established by his sister Meggie at their childhood home in Surrey. And it was at that home, Leith Hill Place, that the booklet photos for the album were shot. ‘I thought it would be the perfect place: Simon and I gave a recital there back in 2014, and we remember it as such an extraordinary setting with its views across Surrey. You can just feel that Vaughan Williams grew up in this environment, with these spectacular views across Surrey: this kind of place must have inspired him to write the Romance and Pastorale and The Lark Ascending. This year we’re going to be returning to Leith Hill Place several times: we’re launching the album with a concert there on 9 July, and for Vaughan Williams’s birthday on 12 October we’re performing for the National Trust’s gala concert. I’m really happy to be officially celebrating Vaughan Williams’s birthday, and especially at Leith Hill Place.’

What differences does Midori notice when performing The Lark Ascending in its original form as opposed to the more familiar orchestral version? ‘When you have an orchestra in the background, naturally you have to think about coming through all that sound. In the piano version, it’s the complete opposite: the piano’s sustained chords are going to decay, so the level of energy you put into sustaining a note is totally different. If you put into it the same energy as you do with an orchestra, there’s a total imbalance of energy, so you have to think about that. Also, playing the original version really makes me think about why Vaughan Williams wrote in such a way for the violin. In the cadenza-like passages, he constantly writes “sur la touche” [playing with the bow over the fingerboard]. When you play this with orchestra it’s really tempting to play it like a cadenza in a concerto, really brilliantly, and that’s how it's often interpreted. But I think he meant it to be more meditative, with an inward quality rather than as an outburst of expression. Even though he was agnostic for most of his life, I think Vaughan Williams did feel the sense of some power greater than human beings, and the power of spiritual energy that connects humans with nature, and I think he was trying to achieve that connection through music. Usually with a violin and orchestra piece – and even violin and piano – the violinist takes on a more virtuosic role, but I think in this piece he really meant for the violin to be embedded within a total kind of picture of nature: it’s not in the foreground but something inside the total picture.’

In the other main work on the album, the less frequently performed Violin Sonata in A minor (1954), the opposite is true, with far more overt virtuosity to the violin writing and a far more demanding musical language. ‘He wrote the piece towards the end of his life, when he was 82 – which is hard to believe when you look at the score – and having lived through two World Wars, I think there’s something he really wanted to tell but up until then had been holding back. But I think because he had been writing a lot of symphonies until that time (just before writing the Sonata he had written Symphony no.7 “Sinfonia antartica”), he had much more experience in writing for a big formation, and naturally the sonorities grew much bigger than in his previous works for violin and piano.’

Are the Sonata’s technical and musical demands responsible for its relative rarity in performance? ‘Yes, I think this is the main reason! Vaughan Williams obviously knew how to write for the violin, but I think in this piece he was purposely trying to achieve something beyond the limits of what is practical, just to see how much he could push the possibilities. And the way he wrote the piece, putting as many notes as possible down at the beginning, and then starting to cut them back afterwards, was like making a sculpture out of a big block of ice or something, whereas The Lark Ascending was something that had notes built on, very much like architecture. I’ve looked at the archives and the manuscripts, and it’s really interesting to see him being told by the violinist Frederick Grinke [the work’s dedicatee, whom he consulted during its composition] that “this is impossible to play”. On the first draft you can see so many crosses through notes by Grinke, saying “this is too much, you can’t play this” and he makes all these suggestions for Vaughan Williams which are eventually taken into the final version.’

Even in its published form, however, the Sonata is still formidably demanding. ‘It’s not something you can just pick up and play in a month’s time or something! It needs time to settle in. For both Simon and I, it was our first time to play this piece, and we prepared it specially for the recording. It’s a little bit more stressful than playing it in a concert at first, because you have to play it over and over again, and then listen back and make adjustments. And because some of the climaxes last three or four pages, there’s a limit to how much you can repeatedly play that kind of passage, so we really had to think about the distribution of our energy throughout the day.’

Midori feels that the Sonata demonstrates not only the transformation in Vaughan Williams’s music as a result of his experiences of two World Wars, but also his fundamentally compassionate nature. ‘I think he was trying to push all those boundaries and let go of all those labels that were put on him by that time as a “pastoral style” composer. He felt something much darker that he did not feel before, when writing The Lark Ascending. And that to me shows the really human side of Vaughan Williams. It’s the kind of reaction that people naturally come to after experiencing such tragic events, when you can no longer contain those feelings, you just have to let it out.’

Musically, the Sonata perfectly complements the more folk-infused, nostalgic works that make up the rest of the disc. ‘I think the Sonata does lend a good structural shape to the programme. With the Violin Sonata in the middle, we do get a sense of listening through Vaughan Williams’s lifetime journey, and the various contrasts in feeling that he had through his life. There is a sense of cleansing in the last movement [which ends with a balmy reminiscence of The Lark Ascending], that we’ve finally washed through our pain and the tragedy has been left behind in the past, and of moving on towards the future.’ In a way, it feels as if we’ve been brought full-circle, a sensation reinforced by the Studies in English Folk-Song that bring the programme to a close.

Finally we talk a little more about the Romance and Pastorale, whose subtle, elegant colouring seems to reflect Vaughan Williams’s period of study with Ravel. ‘That “light touch” definitely came from Ravel, and also connects to Delius – somebody in between England and France, but mostly influenced by French music. Delius was also influenced a lot by African-American folk music, incorporating a lot of folk songs in his music. There’s a parallel between these composers’ roots: Vaughan Williams coming from English folk song and incorporating that into his music, and Delius writing those sentimental, nostalgic melodies, but then adding interesting, complex harmonies which seem to come from maybe French impressionism. Vaughan Williams also had that idea I think – you know, in the Romance and Pastorale, underneath these simple melodies are actually quite interesting harmonic progressions. When you play these harmonies without the melody itself, there’s no real sense of direction, but at the same time they’re really supporting the melodic line. In a way these composers are really alike, developing in a similar direction.’

Throughout our conversation, Midori Komachi’s enthusiastic commitment to Vaughan Williams’s music shines through, something also evident in the sense of involvement and translucency in her playing. ‘This year’s going to be a real Vaughan Williams year for me, because I’m going to introduce Vaughan Williams’s music in Japan as well as doing concerts and projects here [in the UK]. I hope that people will discover more about his music, not just The Lark Ascending but all the other pieces which I believe are just as good, and that the Violin Sonata gets more opportunities to be performed. And I hope that I can play my role in introducing these rare pieces to other musicians and audiences in general, both in the UK and Japan.’

For sound samples and a video ‘taster’, see the album’s product page:
Vaughan Williams - Complete Works for Violin and Piano  MKCD002

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