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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872–1958)
Fantasia on Christmas Carols (1912) [11.42]
Hodie (This Day) (1954) [59.17]
Janice Watson (soprano); Peter Hoare (tenor); Stephen Gadd (baritone)
Guildford Choral Society; St Catherine’s School Middle Chamber Choir
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Hilary Davan Wetton
rec. Cadogan Hall, London, UK, 13-14 February 2007, DDD
Booklet notes are in English and German; no sung texts included
NAXOS 8.570439 [71.00]

Ralph Vaughan Williams left an eclectic, diverse catalogue that includes orchestral works, songs, operas, ballet and a wide variety of choral compositions. The two pieces contained in this CD belong to this latter category and are very good examples of his style and excellence in this type of music.
On the cover, the main title is Hodie, though this is the work that appears second. The CD opens with Fantasia on Christmas Carols, which Vaughan Williams composed in 1912 when he was forty years old. This draws on the composer’s love for the rich tradition of English folk songs and hymns, a tradition he cultivated all his life. It is therefore suitably dedicated to Cecil Sharp (1859-1924), an English folk-song and folk-dance collector and editor, organist and writer. The Fantasia is immediately appealing, from its very beginning. Unusually it opens with an almost haunting brief cello solo, introducing the baritone, which in turn ushers in the orchestra and choir. Stephen Gadd’s wonderfully melodic, rich voice takes you away and leaves you loving this work even, if like me, you are not very keen on Christmas songs. The treatment of the choir is also unconventional. They are asked to sing with their lips closed at the start, reminding me of the famous Coro a Boca Chiusa (the humming chorus) from Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly though the effect is different and less dramatic.  This general ‘humming’ sound continues throughout, as the choir sings with half-closed lips, a technique that Vaughan Williams had previously used and further develops here. Fantasia incorporates four traditional English carols, one collected by Vaughan Williams himself in Sussex, another by Sharp and two by a Mrs Leather in Herefordshire. This is a truly beautiful, warm-hearted piece, the kind of timeless melody that proves always popular, as was the case at its first performance in September 1912, with the composer conducting, even though at that time the carols he chose would not have been as well known as they are today.
The lovely, pleasant Fantasia is then followed by Hodie, written forty-two years later and adequately subtitled Christmas Cantata because that’s what the piece really is. From the opening, it is clearly a work of celebration of the Nativity and to a certain extent of poetry, as it is mostly set to texts of John Milton (1608-1674), Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) and George Herbert (1593-1633). Interestingly, Vaughan Williams professed all his life to be an agnostic but, curiously, wrote many Church pieces. The Christmas theme appears in many of his compositions. His church music was supposedly to be written in a spirit of community rather than the specifically spiritual religious sense. Hodie is however, profoundly religious, deeply spiritual and undoubtedly, whether he meant it or not, a true piece of devotional music.
I am forced to confess that I do not appreciate religious music in any format, exactly because of the strong religious content. I tend to find such compositions boring and my concentration shrinks considerably. Hodie is not one of Vaughan Williams’ greatest achievements. He composed much stronger pieces, as for example the great A Sea Symphony from 1910. This is however a good, lively and bright recording of the work that makes one listen intently even if occasionally one’s attention wanders. I particularly enjoyed the rendition of the Pastoral: the shepherds sing, expressively and beautifully sung by Stephen Gadd, as well as The March of the Three Kings, to me one of the best, most powerful passages in the whole composition. The March is performed with crystalline purity of sound by orchestra and choir, with the soloists delivering their best performances of the entire piece. It literally sparkled and it invigorated me. The Narrations are the parts of Hodie that I least enjoy and where I generally began thinking about other more exciting things, however the performance of the children’s choir – here the St Catherine’s School Middle Chamber Choir, comprising forty girls under fourteen – is truly remarkable. Their pure voices soar, harmoniously set against the unique sound of the organ and are a true pleasure.
The performance of the Guildford Choral Society is excellent throughout though there are some passages where their voices seem to fade away slightly, possibly because of their positioning in relation to the orchestra and the soloists. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra interprets the music expressively, with a clear line and great quality both in the more powerful orchestral moments and the quieter parts where it suitably cushions the voices. The orchestra, under the distinguished baton of Hilary Davan Wetton, does full justice to the Vaughan Williams’ compositions and also to their own founder, Sir Thomas Beecham, perfectly illustrating here his vision of giving the public world-class performances of the greatest music written to the length of the country’.
The three soloists are all established singers of quality, each with a long, distinguished career. Watson and Hoare give solid performances, technically delivering the piece well. Watson’s rich voice is melodic and moving, particularly in her rendition of the heartfelt Lullaby. Peter Hoare, on the other hand, was to me a little disappointing. Whilst technically, he executes his solos well, emotionally his voice is expressionless and slightly monotone, lacking in flexibility. It failed to move me and left me a little indifferent. Of the three soloists, the best, most colourful and luminous voice is undoubtedly Stephen Gadd’s clear, expressive baritone. He sings all his solos not only with flawless technique but also with sparkling, lively sound, easily raising his voice above the rest, bringing the listener in focus, to truly appreciate the musicality of the piece.
The notes in the booklet accompanying the CD are comprehensive and informative, as is usually the case with Naxos. They add value and contain interesting information about the composer and the works, as well as a artist summaries. Some additional notes on the performance itself, detailing perhaps the views of the artists on this particular interpretation would also have been interesting and something that I would have liked to read.
On the whole, this recording of the Fantasia and Hodie, is not your usual Christmas offering. This is commendable in itself, but there are other reasons for singling it out. The performances are distinctive and good. That Naxos chose two of the composer’s works which are not so popular or well known today is to be applauded. Aimed at a knowledgeable public you do not have to be religious truly to appreciate this choral music. If you are not averse to Vaughan Williams’ particular style and are searching for something Christmassy, though not commercially linked to the usual exuberant consumers orgy, then this should appeal.
Margarida Mota-Bull

see also review by Brian Wilson


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