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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 January, 2007. DDD
Booklet with notes in English and German but no texts (available online only).
NAXOS 8.570439 [71:00]

Though not quite ideal in the popular Fantasia, this version of Hodie brings to life a work which I had previously written off as one of RVW’s few failures

This new issue in the Naxos British Choral Music series goes head to head with the same coupling on a vintage EMI mid-price reissue: Barry Rose conducting the Fantasia and David Willcocks’ version of Hodie on 5 67427-2. Rose’s version of the Fantasia was recorded with Guildford Cathedral Choir; there seems to be some kind of mystic connection between this work and Guildford. Another, full-price, EMI recording of the same coupling under Richard Hickox (CDC7 54128 2, rec.1990, DDD) has been deleted.

The Fantasia is a work with a ready appeal, effectively a catena of Christmas Carols for baritone soloist, choir and orchestra, with bells and organ at the climax. Though fairly well-known today, the four main carols would have been comparatively little-known in 1912. One comes from the collection of Cecil Sharp, to whom the Fantasia is fittingly dedicated; the others were collected by RVW himself in Herefordshire and Sussex. Better-known tunes, such as The First Nowell, flit in and out of the texture.

I openly admit to having a soft-spot for this kind of updated early or traditional music: the Fantasia has the same kind of appeal for me as Rodrigo’s Fantasia para un Gentilhombre or Stravinsky’s Pulcinella or Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances and Gli Uccelli.

Hodie, on the other hand, has never been one of my favourite RVW works. Much as I love even his less well-known music, such as the delectable Oxford Elegy, I have to admit that I have always found Hodie something of a bore. The opening, in the rumbustious manner of the Tudor Portraits, gets my attention but the rest of the work rather outstays its welcome – at least in the Hickox version.

It has always seemed to me that the Fantasia would be more logically coupled with Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s Carol Symphony which was, if I remember aright, the original LP coupling for the Barry Rose version. Naxos, however, already have a version of this work in their catalogue (8.557099) coupled with Patric Standford’s Carol Symphony and other works, of which my fellow Musicweb reviewer Neil Horner wrote "This is a lovely Christmas collection of lighter orchestral music, overseen by Gavin Sutherland who can do little wrong in this sort of repertoire."

So how does the new version of the Fantasia compare with existing versions? Does the new version of Hodie persuade me more than the Hickox version? Hilary Davan Wetton and the Guildford Choral Society were jointly responsible for the rather unsatisfactory Hyperion version of RVW’s Mystical Songs and Tudor Portraits (see below) so I came with no very great expectations.

Before trying to answer those questions, I listened, as usual, to the CD once through without making notes. First impressions were very positive: two idiomatic performances, lively where appropriate, lyrical and thoughtful too in the right places, all in a wide-ranging recording. My attention still wandered occasionally in places in Hodie, but the strength of the performance soon regained it. The rousing performance of the Epilogue, In the beginning was the Word, is particularly vividly recorded.

The mysterious cello opening of the Fantasia is well handled both on Naxos and on the EMI/Hickox recording: on both it seems to arise from nowhere, a little more magically on EMI than on Naxos, where the sound is slightly more forward. Stephen Gadd (Naxos) is a much darker-hued baritone than Stephen Roberts (EMI); both are a little ponderous at first, needing to warm up like the poor tenor who has the first aria in Handel’s Messiah. Roberts’ voice seems to arise from nowhere like the opening cello solo and increase in volume as he progresses. Gadd comes in louder from the start and his measured tones don’t quite float as they should over the quiet choral background in the first carol, This is the Truth. Almost inevitably, both singers stress unimportant words like ‘which’ and ‘and’; no-one would mistake either for a folk-singer but the music forces them to obey some folk-music conventions.

The pace increases as the choir take up the second carol, Come all ye worthy gentlemen. In On Christmas night the baritone re-enters; the music is livelier now and Gadd rises to the occasion, but Roberts again has a slight edge on him. In the final God bless the ruler of this house, measured tones are again called for. If anything, Roberts is the more measured here. After the climax with bells and organ – neither of them exactly bursting through the sound-palette on either recording – the music dies away as it began. Both versions handle this well.

The Guildford Choir (Naxos) sound a little too backward throughout. This may be due to the recording balance, or it may simply be that they lack the power of the St Paul’s choristers (EMI) who are more forward where it matters.

Hickox takes 18 seconds less overall and his version has the edge in liveliness where it matters – more so than the mere 18 seconds difference would suggest. The EMI recording is lighter and more natural than the Naxos. I don’t wish to exaggerate the shortcomings of the Naxos performance or recording but the score has to be something like 9 to 7 in favour of the Hickox at this stage. If it’s just the Fantasia that you want, it might be worth looking in the remainders bin for a copy of the EMI/Hickox, but the difference is not great enough to warrant offering silly prices on the web.

Hickox has re-recorded the Fantasia for Chandos (CHAN10385) in a coupling with two other RVW Christmas pieces (not Hodie), a CD strongly recommended by Rob Barnett a year ago. I note from the header of that review that he now takes the work at a more leisurely pace, 12:19 against 11:24 on his earlier EMI version.

The Fantasia also features on a Classics for Pleasure CD A Hallé Christmas, reviewed by Christopher Thomas, who thought the disc worthwhile for the RVW alone: "a spirited performance ... [with] a sensitive accompaniment." (CFP 5 75797 2).

Amongst other recordings of the Fantasia, only the EMI Rose/Willcocks version couples it with Hodie – a decent version, as I recall from its LP incarnation, reportedly now sounding impressive in its ADD reincarnation – but see Rob Barnett’s comments on the acoustic of this version, in his review of the Chandos/Hickox, above – and costing just a little more than the Naxos.

Readers of the 2008 Penguin Guide should beware. The four-star key-repertoire listing of a bargain-price recording of the Fantasia on CDH55044 is most misleading. Far from containing the Fantasia, as stated, this CD actually offers Four Mystical Songs and Tudor Portraits – listed correctly at the foot of the next column – and is, in fact, one of my very few disappointments among Helios reissues. The four-star Corydon Singers/Matthew Best recording of the Fantasia, Four Mystical Songs, Flos Campi and Serenade to Music is actually still at full price on CDA66420. The 2005 edition got this right, so it is a mystery how the error crept in.

If the half-time score stood in Hickox’s favour, matters are otherwise in Hodie. There is nothing that I can specifically fault in the EMI version. Everything seems in place from performers and recording engineers. Indeed, if anything, the EMI recording is again lighter-toned and slightly more natural than the Naxos. Timings for individual sections are very similar, with Hickox marginally faster in general. The actual difference overall amounts to just over a minute in a work almost an hour long.

Hodie is to some extent a more didactic, almost devotional work. RVW was an agnostic in the true sense of that word, not an atheist. The work lends itself to Davan Wetton’s slightly more deliberate pacing. The form mirrors that of the familiar Nine Lessons and Carols, itself modelled on the three nocturnes of Matins for Christmas Day, each with three lessons. RVW reduces the number of lessons to seven, sung not read, opens with words from Christmas Day Vespers which give the piece its name:

Nowell! Nowell!
Hodie Christus natus est; hodie salvator apparuit:
Hodie in terra canunt angeli, lætantur archangeli:
Hodie exsultant iusti, dicentes: gloria in excelsis Deo: Alleluia

[This day Christ is born; this day the saviour has appeared:
This day angels sing on earth, archangels rejoice:
This day the righteous exult, singing Glory to God in the highest: Alleluia]

and intersperses a wide variety of settings, ranging from the late-medieval to words by his wife Ursula. If the setting of Thomas Hardy’s The Oxen chimes with RVW’s own reluctant agnosticism, the initial Nowell! and the Epilogue, beginning with the opening of St John’s Gospel and concluding with Ring out ye crystal spheres from Milton’s Hymn on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, sound like real commitment. In both performances they come over as such but the slight extra breadth that they receive on Naxos underlines that sense of commitment slightly more: 3:56 against 3:46 and 6:49 against 6:34 respectively.

Whereas EMI’s lighter sound is more appropriate in the Fantasia, the greater weight of the Naxos recording is more telling in Hodie, bringing out the relationship with the Tudor Portraits and the Seventh Symphony, Sinfonia Antartica. Yet it is not too forward in the quieter moments, such as track 3, Now the birth of Jesus Christ. The Guildford choir may be no match for the St Paul’s choristers but they make a pretty good fist of everything in Hodie. St Catherine’s Middle School Chamber choristers also acquit themselves well. They have tracks 5 (And it came to pass...) and track 11 (But Mary kept all these things ...) to themselves.

Stephen Gadd’s weightier baritone also sounds more appropriate here than in the Fantasia, especially in the wistful setting of Hardy’s The Oxen (track 8); the other soloists are equally fine. Janice Watson blends well with the choir in the lullaby Sweet was the song (track 12) rising above them just enough without drowning them. Peter Hoare’s voice is also just right for Bright portals (track 13) rising almost to the heights suggested by the opening fanfare but with a just a hint of human fallibility.

My comparative scores for Hodie, then, are reversed – 9 to 7 in favour of the Naxos – admittedly, for subjective reasons which I cannot fully explain.

The booklet is informative but the lack of texts is both annoying and unusual for Naxos. Their availability on the Naxos website only partly compensates. There is enough space on the CD for them to have been included there in CD-ROM form. I could have done without the slipcase – a fiddle to get on and off, anyway – but not the texts.

I compared the opening of Hodie with the Tudor Portraits. If you have yet to make the acquaintance of this work, settings of John Skelton, the most scurrilous self-styled laureate that ever was, I urge you to do so. Hilary Davan Wetton’s version on Hyperion Helios CDH55004 is rather under-powered and coupled with a version of the Mystical Songs which I also find lacking; go for the Hickox version (Chandos CHAN9593). Here the score was even more in favour of Hickox than is the case in the Fantasia; more like 9 to 6 this time. I got to know the wonderful Portraits in Willcocks’s LP version, briefly transferred to CD but another victim of the deletions axe which seems to have polished off all his RVW recordings. What about restoring some of them on cdr, Arkiv? Thank goodness that Lyrita have now restored his version of RVW’s The Sons of Light (see Musicweb review by Christopher Howell, with links to reviews by Rob Barnett and John Quinn).

The wonderful Willcocks version of the Oxford Elegy – a Cambridge choir doing full justice to my own alma mater – is also currently deleted, even in the 9-CD set which Rob Barnett reviewed in 2003. It’s well worth looking for the odd copy which may be lingering in some shops: 5 67221 2 for the single CD or 5 75795 2 for the box set. There are versions by Robert Taylor (Centaur CRC2299) and Stephen Darlington (Nimbus NI5166), neither of which I have heard. I note that Hilary Davan Wetton has recently given a concert performance of the Oxford Elegy, with Jeremy Irons as narrator. Perhaps Naxos will oblige us with a recording. If it lives up to the promise of his Hodie, rather than his version of the Tudor Portraits and Mystical Songs, it should be a winner.

To return to Christmas music, don’t forget the very special series of Archiv recordings which I mentioned at the end of my recent review of Ton Koopman’s Puer Nobis Nascitur, which I repeat here for convenience:

If you want a Christmas CD that really knocks your socks off, go for one of Paul McCreesh’s liturgical reconstructions – A Venetian Christmas on DGG 471 333-2 (music by Giovanni Gabrieli and others), Christmas Vespers 1664 by Schütz (463 046-2) or, even better, Lutheran Mass for Christmas Morning (1620), featuring the music of Prætorius and his contemporaries (439 250-2).

Brian Wilson


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