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Hickox conducts Vaughan Williams
Richard Hickox * Northern Sinfonia of England * Sinfonia Chorus * Bradley Creswick, violin * Stephen Roberts, baritone * Roger Winfield, oboe
EMI British Composers series EMI CZS5739862 [Total Time: 156: 51 * Disc One: 77:53 - Disc Two 78:58]

Disc One: Serenade to Music (orchestral version), The Poisoned Kiss - overture, Old King Cole - A Ballet for orchestra, Five Mystical Songs, Prelude on an Old Carol Tune, The Running Set, Prelude: 49th Parallel, Sea Songs - March.

Disc Two: The Lark Ascending, Two Hymn-Tune Preludes, Oboe Concerto in A minor, Fantasia on 'Greensleeves', Three Preludes Founded on Welsh Hymn Tunes Nos. 2 & 3, Concerto Accademinco (Concerto for violin and strings in D minor), Five Variants on 'Dives and Lazarus'.


I have to confess a bias. For me Vaughan-Williams is the great English composer, towering over English music in a way that others, not even Elgar, can hope to match. Elgar may have written greater music, but VW wrote far more great music. VW is everything a major composer should be, unpretentiously writing for an audience, like Bach or Handel or Vivaldi, in the service of his community and time, his work relevant and communicating to those who would hear it. Having said that it should be clear I would regard the music on this collection fundamental to any civilised CD collection.

There are many VW anthologies available, but several things make this one particularly worthwhile. Many collections gather, as here, the usual suspects The Lark Ascending, Fantasia on 'Greensleeves', Prelude: 49th Parallel, and Five Variants of 'Dives and Lazarus', but this extensive set offers a total of 15 of works, including various pieces which tend to be overlooked. Then there is the very generous running time, the set playing over 2½ hours, or 4LPs worth of music, for a mere £11. Given the often inconsistent nature of compilation, this in itself is not necessarily recommendation, but here all the material is performed by the same orchestra, the Northern Sinfonia of England, under the direction of the same conductor, Richard Hickox, recorded in four sets of sessions between November 1983 and July 1987. The discs thus have the consistency of one epic programme. This would still not automatically require a recommendation, except that Richard Hickox is perhaps the modern conductor most in sympathy with this music, and who has done more than any other conductor to further the cause of 20th century British music. Consequently, these versions are very fine indeed, with a recorded sound which perfectly matches the quintessentially English quality of the music. The booklet meanwhile reproduces the original issue liner notes from the '80s, the first set by Michael Kennedy, the second by Stephen Banfield, though there is nothing about Hickox, the soloists or orchestra.

It would take a very long review to comment on each work individually. Suffice to say that the 22-minute Old King Cole - A Ballet for Orchestra is one of those largely unknown VW works which here is light and exuberant and simply tremendous fun. It is of course exceptionally tuneful. The Concerto Accademinco (Concerto for violin and strings in D minor) is elegant, precise and a through joy, succinct neo-classicism long before anyone thought of the term. The Three Preludes Founded on Welsh Hymn Tunes Nos. 2 & 3 are stirring in a way which seems timeless. The Five Mystical Songs, here in the version for baritone, orchestra and chorus take, have a majestic hymnal quality which is extremely moving. The singer Stephen Roberts is as fine here as violinist Bradley Creswick is in The Lark Ascending.

This is an exceptional anthology in every way, and the best new reissue collection I have heard this year.

Gary S. Dalkin

Reviews from previous months

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