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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Vaughan Williams’ Christmas Music

Fantasia on Christmas Carols (1912) [12:19]
On Christmas Night - A Masque adapted from Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1925-26) [28:08]
The First Nowell - A Nativity Play (1958) [29:09]
Sarah Fox (soprano; mezzo)
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Joyful Company of Singers
City of London Sinfonia/Richard Hickox
rec. St Jude on the Hill, Hampstead, London, 5, 15 December 2005. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN 10385 [69:36]

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This was a coupling just waiting to be made. Praise to Chandos for having ‘a listening ear’. Faultless too is the seasonal timing. The disc will also draw in a legion of RVW enthusiasts who will have pounced on a CD that offers premiere recordings of On Christmas Night and the Fantasia at least in this version. I was not aware that The First Nowell had been recorded by anyone else but this is its first appearance on CD. RVW fans need have no misgivings about the performances either.

Christmas was one of the wellsprings from which Vaughan Williams drew his creativity. Quite apart from these three works he is responsible for arrangements of numerous carols in the democratising English Hymnal as well as the major tableaux cantata Hodie. If you look at these dates and add his hymnal work you can see that the inspirational grip of carols and Christmas – not quite the same thing - on the agnostic composer was unremitting.

The Fantasia on Christmas Carols was dedicated to Cecil Sharp and is based on the four carols: 'The Truth sent from above', 'Come all you worthy gentlemen', 'On Christmas Night' and 'There is a fountain filled with blood', plus hints of other carols. This recording uses the alternative scoring using an organ plus strings accompaniment. The 1960s EMI Barry Rose/John Barrow version also uses the string version but no organ. John Barrow etches the syllables with more precision than Roberts but on the other hand Roberts is rock-steady while Barrow leans on more vibrato. The rumbling analogue ‘atmosphere’ of the Guildford version is absent and the choir is recorded with great subtlety and dynamics are observed with fine and comely precision.

On Christmas Night was originally called A Christmas Carol. It derives from an adaptation of the Dickens’ story. This began as a ballet score commissioned by Adolf Bolm, who had been a principal dancer with Diaghilev. It was first performed in 1926. The ballet must have made a pleasing contrast with the usual Nutcracker. While the Fantasia is all serenity and mysticism, On Christmas Night is much more varied. In the Prelude and Marley’s Ghost we are treated to some real grotesquerie and grand guignol out of Pilgrim’s Progress and Riders to the Sea. Of course serenity is admitted at the gate and The Spirit of Christmas is touched with Dives and Lazarus and the Falstaff-Father Christmas amble of the bassoon surely is meant to recall The Keel Row as is Morris Jig. Sir Roger de Coverley (also beloved of Frank Bridge) can also be heard graciously stepping it out at Fezziwig’s Party and under its own name at track 9. There is a magically entranced Midnight that mixes The First Nowell and The Truth sent from above. Out of this hush also emerged, some years later, Finzi’s Christmas choral piece In Terra Pax. In The Black Nag, not for the first time, the Hardyesque country fiddler can be heard ‘bowing it higher and higher’ amid the plumes of breathy condensation. The Procession of the Nativity mixes serene voices from what he later used in the Prelude to the music for the Forty-Ninth Parallel with sensitively sung carols and warmingly harmonised brass writing topped off with the Nativity bells. All ends in warmth and serenity.

The First Nowell is a nativity play for soloists, chorus and small orchestra, was arranged and adapted from medieval pageants by Simona Pakenham. It was incomplete when the composer died in 1958 but the finishing touches were made by Roy Douglas who had often worked with the composer over the years. I know the piece from the centenary year (1972) BBC broadcast in which Bernard Keefe conducted the Serenata of London and the soloists included Sally le Sage and John Carol Case. That broadcast lasted far longer than this adaptation because the BBC included dramatisations of the Christmas story. A number of traditional tunes are included such as On Christmas Night, The Cherry Tree Carol and God rest you merry gentlemen. Highlights include the baritone solo and chorus episode Joseph and Mary with a plangent introduction from the harp. The longest episode is the final one: The First Nowell for soprano, baritone, chorus and orchestra. The effect is superbly carried off here. This is enormously strengthened by the purity of the chorus as well as the crystal clarity of the solo singing and the precise yet not stilted enunciation. The piece ends not in a triumphant dazzle of brass and bells but the quiescent serenity associated - at least in this season - with the Christ-child.

To complement this collection do hear the composer’s major Christmas choral work Hodie. The pioneering 1960s version is on EMI Classics (CDM 5 67427-2) from Janet Baker, Richard Lewis and John Shirley-Quirk with the Bach Choir, Choristers of Westminster Abbey and London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir David Willcocks. The same disc also includes the Fantasia on Christmas Carols from John Barrow, the Choir of Guildford Cathedral and String Orchestra all conducted by conducted by Barry Rose. You can hear Richard Hickox’s 1990 recording of Hodie on EMI Classics (EMI CDC7 54128-2, now deleted but surely to emerge on the company’s British Composer series if it has not already) with Elizabeth Gale, Robert Tear and Stephen Roberts with the St Paul’s Cathedral Choir and the London Symphony Orchestra.

Speaking of neglected Christmas music, how long will it be before we have the first recording of Cyril Rootham’s wonderful 45 minute Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity?

Let me be mildly heretical for a few moments and again put in a plea for realisations of the incomplete opera Thomas The Rhymer and the unfinished Cello Concerto. We are also in need of premiere recordings of The Folksongs of the Four Seasons and realisations of the ‘other’ two Norfolk Rhapsodies.

The presentation and recording are excellent and the thorough and interesting documentation is by Stephen Connock, Chairman of the RVW Society.

Back to this release. These are beautifully sensitive performances atmospherically recorded; irresistible to the growing clan of RVW enthusiasts. The CD should also have a much broader constituency as Christmas approaches. There’s even a sprig of holly on the CD!

Rob Barnett


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