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Thomas TALLIS (1505-1585)
Why fum’th in fight? (1567) [0:54] 1
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910) [16:17] 2
Symphony No. 5 in D major (1943) 3
Serenade to Music (1938) 4
4Jessica Rivera (soprano); 4Kelley O’Connor (mezzo); 4Thomas Studebaker (tenor); 4Nmon Ford (baritone);  1,4Atlanta Chamber Chorus;  2Cecylia Arzewski (violin 1); 2David Arenz (violin 2); 2Reid Harris (viola); 2Christopher Rex (cello); 2-4Atlanta Symphony Orchestra/Robert Spano
rec. Woodruff Arts Center, Symphony Hall, Atlanta, 25 September, 1, 3 October 2006. DDD
TELARC SACD-60676 [70:32]
(also available as normal CD: CD-80676)



Now here’s an innovation, prefacing Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis with a performance of the theme to its original words, Why fum’th in fight? which make clear this is a song of protest. However, this edge isn’t altogether evident in Spano’s Fantasia. Perhaps the achievement of sheer density of string sound clearly caught in surround sound leads to more focus on sonority and balance than rhythm and drama. The opening is smooth, almost pastoral, that natural swaying motif in the lower strings slightly wary and then an untypical dramatic and therefore very effective sudden fp (tr. 2 1:00) calls you to attention to introduce the theme. This is rich and imposing with the shimmering first violins’ descant, its repeat treated with great breadth but not really appassionato as marked. The declamatory first orchestra and devotional smaller second orchestra are neatly differentiated but I feel the string quartet of soloists, whose contributions are movingly expressive, are a little too much in the foreground. Spano’s approach as the piece develops is consistently broad but the climax (11:02) is a little lacking in bite because the poco a poco animando from 10:30 leading up to it is too careful.
 
I compared the 1962 recording by the Sinfonia of London/John Barbirolli (EMI 5672642). This has an opening of more pristine calm, a great fiery surge of appassionato repeat of the theme and more startling dynamic contrasts between the two orchestras. The section featuring solo quartet is notably more animated, as marked, which gives it a freer, more folksong like character. Spano’s approach here is more emotive, paying more attention to the tempo rubato marking, but this slows things down to a point from which it’s more difficult to generate pace up to the climax. At that climax Barbirolli’s greater animation aids the lyrical outpouring and creates an effect almost of spontaneous combustion culminating in a great declamation. Not as scrupulous in balance as Spano but more gripping in outcome.
 
Spano’s SACD continues with Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony, a work of similarly strong contrasts. In this recording the significance of the cellos and double-basses’ groundswell is always clear. From the start they move everything purposefully forward. So here’s a calm of sure progression, indeed of urgency of continuity of theme as the first violins go into upper tessitura (tr. 3 2:15). The second theme and change to E major (3:27) comes like a sudden blessing. The development (5:25) clearly pitches the half-lights of swaying pianissimo strings against a sinister falling motif in the wind. Spano makes its climax sufficiently stormy without upstaging the greater blaze of the second theme’s return (8:37) in the recapitulation.
 
Spano is sensitive to the contrasts within the second movement Scherzo: a feathery opening of misty, muted strings, then a jocular theme which bounces along. The first Trio features a rather gaunt tune in cor anglais, clarinets, bassoons and horns (tr. 4 1:57). The second Trio (3:38) is chirpy. The magical moment is at 4:24 when the fast opening and recurring material is presented becalmed, as a kind of yawning stretch.
 
Vaughan Williams headed the manuscript of the third movement Romanza with a quotation from The Pilgrim’s Progress: “Upon that place there stood a cross and a little below a sepulchre. Then he said, “He hath given me rest by his sorrow and life by his death”” and these latter words are sung in Vaughan Williams’ opera by the Pilgrim to the first theme of this movement, a rich cor anglais solo as provided by Spano after a rapt strings’ backcloth. This is followed by a strings’ meditation of great humanity and density. Yet Spano allows the movement to unfold easily, with woodwind arabesques creating an active atmosphere which leads logically into a more restless development (tr. 5 5:40). The recapitulation (8:10) provides a consolation of luminous warmth presented first by the orchestra as a vast community, then in terms of individual souls through the solos in the coda of violin, horn, viola and cello.
 
The Passacaglia finale in Spano’s hands has a spring in its step, gusto to the close of the opening section and a paean of triumph about it as the brass open the second section (tr. 6 1:41) confirmed by its thrilling climax and that vivid capping of the horns and trumpets’ ff chord by trombones and bass trombone at 3:25 to usher in the third section, a resolute course charted through more shadowy paths. But at 6:13 comes the return of the symphony’s opening and coda, the violins’ material tenderly recalled before a warm, expansive version at 7:27 of the passacaglia’s counter-melody. Spano shows the breadth and repose this movement has hastened towards.
 
I compared the only other recording on SACD, made in 1997 by the London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox (Chandos CHSA 5004). Here are the comparative timings:
 
I
II
III
IV
Total
Spano
12:10
5:09
11:50
10:21
39:30
Hickox
12:14
4:57
12:01
10:00
39:30

The Chandos recording has more sense of space and dynamic contrast; the Telarc is more of a close-up experience. Despite an identical overall timing, Spano’s first movement is more urgently presented. Hickox favours a more patient evolution. His second theme has a lighter assurance than Spano’s. From his opening sensitive pp strings Spano makes the development more dramatic but the clear directness of his recapitulation doesn’t have the composure or burnished climax of Hickox. Spano’s climax is more formal.
 
Hickox’s Scherzo is all finesse, a shimmering haze of mysterious activity. The first Trio is still other-worldly, the second spicier. I prefer Spano’s firmer articulation, more pointed humour to the oboe and cor anglais interventions from tr. 4 0:58. There’s more sense of activity, a jauntier swing. Spano’s first Trio theme is more deliberate and the movement’s closing becalming seems more natural if less smooth.
 
In the Romanza Spano’s more heart-on-sleeve approach and more sonorous strings are more moving, though Hickox creates more of an unearthly stillness in the opening and his more pointed contrasts in tempi give more sense of fervour. He brings drama to the development but Spano is still starker. Hickox’s woodwind arabesques are more poised, Spano’s more natural. In the recapitulation the LSO strings have a golden sheen but the Atlanta orchestra displays an even finer breadth.
 
Hickox’s Passacaglia has an easy flow and sense of blossoming. Its second section is sunny, full of joy and life, its third section a beauteous sorrow, the closing counter-melody more emotively presented than on the Telarc disc but the violins at the end quieter and more ethereal. Spano’s opening has more urgency, his second section more majesty. His third section is slower which makes it more intently troubled, his working to a climax more arduous than Hickox’s but his closing counter-melody then a smoother acknowledgement of journey’s end. Overall, I’d say honours are about even.
 
Finally on this SACD Spano brings us a work of comparable serenity, the Serenade to Music, Vaughan Williams’ selected setting of the dialogue between Lorenzo and Jessica at the beginning of the final scene of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. It’s all idealization, ‘How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank’, but the musical setting matches the charm of the poetry. The violin solo in the introduction, beautifully played here with gentle touches of portamento, makes it an assured personal reverie. The chorus to those opening words is as balmy as you could wish. But there’s an incandescent centre as well when the tenor soloist pictures in fiery fashion angelic song (tr. 7 5:10) and the chorus affirms with strength the harmony of immortal souls (5:31). Not just then the limpid ascent of the opening and closing soprano solo nor the greater warmth of the emotive mezzo’s ‘Music! Hark!’ (9:15).
 
The work was originally scored for sixteen vocal soloists who also made up the chorus. Spano here presents one of the practical variants authorized by the composer: four soloists and chorus. The disadvantage is that the distinction of timbre between the soloists is thereby lost, notably in the bass where ‘The reason is, your spirits are attentive’ (7:55) requires a baritone solo but ‘The motions of his spirit are dull as night’ (8:36) a basso profundo. I compared the 1969 recording by Adrian Boult and the LPO (EMI 7640222) which uses sixteen soloists. Vocally this is preferable because of the subtle distinctions. Another example is ‘Come, ho! And wake Diana with a hymn’ (6:35). For Boult, Sheila Armstrong is more assertive here than Norma Burrowes in the opening solo, but still pearly and both gain from lacking the vibrato of Spano’s soloist. On the other hand a benefit Spano and the surround sound bring is a more sensuous orchestral backcloth, especially for the opening chorus where it seems lovingly to wrap around the voices.
 
In sum, this is a well-balanced programme of perceptive performances. At its best, in the inner movements of the symphony, it’s very convincing. 
 
Michael Greenhalgh
 



 


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