A collection of well-known Vaughan Williams orchestral
works adds another disc to Naxos’ SACD series.
Although I found the performance of the first work (Fantasia
on a Theme of Thomas Tallis) disappointing, the disc as
a whole is a good one and excellent value at budget price. The
Tallis Fantasia works much better in surround sound than
it does in stereo. If you only have stereo, and are after a
version of the Fantasia, this is not the one for you!
Whilst surround sound creates an impressive effect, the piece
in stereo commences with a very homogenous sound at the start,
lacking in that vital distinction and definition between the
different sets of players. Although this gets better as the
work continues, the sound in stereo remains flat and neutral,
devoid of the radiant reverberance that needs to emanate from
it. The quartet is too prominent in stereo, disproportionately
loud, and doesn’t blend in with the string orchestras. Although
surround sound corrects the balance a bit, there are still problems.
There is not enough delicacy or transparency (most likely a
result of the recording venue – the Michael Fowler Centre in
Wellington – a far cry from Gloucester Cathedral where the work
was premiered), and the piece is too closely miked. There is
a strange whooshing sound as the orchestra comes in at one point,
and lots of very heavy breathing throughout. As a general rule,
the performance doesn’t achieve the spaciousness that the piece
calls for, and isn’t shimmery or haunting enough at the start.
The climax two-thirds of the way through the piece is too aggressive,
and the performance is rather coarse and hard-driven, leading
to an ultimately uninspiring recording.
The rest of the disc, however, cannot be criticised,
and contains some first-rate performances, including a most
atmospheric rendition of the first Norfolk Rhapsody and
a very idiomatic and sensitive performance of In The Fen
Country, with a beautiful cor anglais solo. The other two
pieces on the disc are the Fantasia on Greensleeves (a
capable performance), and a slightly gruff version of the Concerto
Grosso, with rather mechanical playing that reflects the
way the piece was constructed (for three sets of players of
very different musical ability).
The sound is good in all of the works, the Tallis
exceptions noted, and is greatly boosted when listened to
in surround. The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra play excellently
and conductor James Judd - who has a fairly extensive English
repertoire, but is not particularly well known in the UK due
to his long-term commitments abroad - brings the pieces off
well in a worthwhile disc. Whilst one will find no perspicacious
insights in these performances, this disc is a safe choice and
delivers sound versions of these classic works.
by Christopher Howell