Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
An Oxford Christmas - Arrangements from The Oxford Book of
Choir of the Chapel of the Royal Hospital Chelsea/William Vann
Joshua Ryan (organ)
rec. 2020/21, St. Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London
ALBION RECORDS ALBCD050 [68:32]
Lead times being as they are in the recording industry, this new CD is being released in good time for Christmas. It feels slightly odd to listen to Christmas music in October when we’re in the midst of the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, but if William Vann and his choir can record the music in June and October then I too should be able to summon up the Christmas spirit in anticipation.
All but the last two of the arrangements gathered here are taken from The Oxford Book of Carols (OBC), published in 1928. The two outliers were published by OUP at a later date. The disc complements an earlier release, A Vaughan Williams Christmas (review). On that disc William Vann conducted performances of the four original carols that VW contributed to the 1928 Oxford collection. That volume also included 31 arrangements by VW. The most famous of all was O Little Town of Bethlehem, which William Vann included on that previous CD. Here we have another 20 of VW’s contributions to OBC. I think it would be fair to say that none of these is anything like as well-known as O Little Town; indeed, Albion reckon that at least ten of the tracks on this CD are first recordings. I absolutely rejoice in the amount of high-quality Christmas music that has been composed or arranged over the last forty years or so. However, perhaps there’s been something of a price to pay in that older, but no less good, Christmas music has fallen from view?
It may be worthwhile just to dwell a little on the background to the publication of The Oxford Book of Carols and for this I’m indebted to the fascinating booklet essay by Jeremy Summerly. The OBC grew out of the justly famous English Hymnal which VW edited at the beginning of the twentieth century at the behest of Rev. Percy Dearmer. The third influential figure in the creation of the OBC was Martin Shaw who, on VW’s recommendation, was appointed organist of Dearmer’s parish in 1908. Together Dearmer and Shaw worked together on a new collection, The English Carol Book. When a second compilation of the ECB was published in 1919, Vaughan Williams was among the contributors. Dearmer, Shaw and VW then produced another hymn book, Songs of Praise, in 1925 before embarking on what was to become three years later The Oxford Book of Carols. Summerly reminds us of two key facts about the OBC. First, the selection of music ranged far more widely than England; carols from many nations were drawn in. Secondly, this was more than a collection of Christmas carols; the volume incorporated carols for such seasons as Lent, Easter and Whitsun. Thus, the title of this CD is not quite what it seems; among the 22 tracks are several which make no mention of the Christmas season. But that’s not intended as a criticism; the whole point of the OBC was to present a wide range of carols and to demonstrate that, to adapt a slogan from another context, ‘a carol isn’t just for Christmas’. Drawing attention to the way in which the editors went back to traditional sources and swept away fusty musical Victoriana, Jeremy Summerly describes the OBC as “a beacon of experimentation within tradition..[and].. a visionary musico-poetic collection of the most profoundly partisan nature.” As this CD demonstrates, Vaughan Williams made a characteristically significant contribution to this enterprise.
The programme is book-ended by the Sussex Mummers’ Carol, which is one of the non-Christmas carols; it recalls Christ’s Passion and death and could be a Lenten carol. At the start we hear all six verses in VW’s arrangement for OBC. The tune is very lovely and I like the slow, expansive way in which William Vann treats it, the singing very beautiful. Right at the end of the disc, we hear the last three verses in a much more elaborate a cappella harmonisation, published in 1956. It makes a splendid conclusion to the programme, though I have to say VW’s first effort allows the tune, and the sentiments carried by the words, to speak much more directly to us. Curiously, in the 1956 version, VW ordered the last three verses thus: 5, 4, 6.
I like very much the good, sturdy yet flowing tune of A Virgin Most Pure. It’s quite a lengthy piece – seven verses, with a refrain in between each one – but the presentation by Vann and his singers is good, so any risk of boredom is avoided. The Sussex Carol features twice in the programme. The First Tune is the one with which we’re all familiar; VW collected it in 1904. The Second Tune will be far less familiar, I suspect; I’d never heard it. I learned from the booklet that Dr James Culwick collected the tune in 1904 and recalled that his mother had heard it in Dublin – does this imply an Irish origin for the tune? Apparently, Dr Culwick’s mother remembered that the song she heard had around ninety verses! Here, just the usual four are sung. It’s a much more pensive, plaintive tune than the familiar one; as a result, the carol has more than a hint of melancholy to it. The Second Tune adds a completely different dimension to the words of this well-known carol and it’s fascinating to hear it. Much more familiar is the cheery, secular Gloucestershire Wassail, though I was intrigued to learn that despite its title VW collected it from a singer across the county border in Herefordshire.
We’re back onto unfamiliar territory with The Salutation Carol, which relates the story of the Annunciation. It’s a most attractive, lilting affair and I really like the effective use of dynamic contrasts in this performance. The Bellman’s Song is definitely not a Christmas carol; it’s about Christ dying on the cross and man’s mortality. Apparently, the OBC contained no less than three versions of this carol; here we have the two by Vaughan Williams. The Third Tune appears in a harmonisation which VW made for The English Hymnal, giving the tune the title ‘Newbury’. It’s a good tune in a lovely a cappella harmonisation. The Second Tune, which has organ accompaniment, is more robust. I like it, but I think on balance I prefer ‘Newbury’.
This Endris Night includes a Fa-Burden by Martin Shaw. I really like this carol but I’m not entirely convinced by the performance. Many years ago, Sir John Eliot Gardiner and The Monteverdi Choir recorded VW’s arrangement on a Christmas disc (review) and I’ve always thought the easy lilt which Gardiner imparted to the music was ideal. William Vann takes it just a bit more slowly and I miss Gardiner’s lightness of touch – the solo verse which opens proceedings here is far too slow, though thereafter the tempo picks up a bit. That said, the slightly greater breadth of Vann’s performance allows the harmonies to register a little more. I may as well mention now the only other occasion when a Vann speed caused my eyebrows fractionally to rise. If Ye Would Hear the Angels Sing is very nicely done, but I think that just a bit more spring in the music’s step would have worked wonders, emphasising the sense of joy in words and music. This, by the way, is
a joint adaptation by Martin Shaw and Vaughan Williams.
I mentioned that the editors of OBC ranged far beyond the shores of the British Isles. Song of the Crib is a case in point. The tune is German – you may know the carol as Joseph lieber, Joseph mein – and VW harmonised the melody for the English Hymnal. Here, it’s sung to English words translated by Dearmer. It’s another long text – eight verses plus refrain – but William Vann sensibly varies the delivery, allotting a number of verses to soloists, so as to maintain the listener’s interest. Quem Pastores - Shepherds Left Their Flocks A-Straying is also European; the tune is found in a hymnbook published in Wroclaw in 1555. We know it best as Quem Pastores Laudavere. This is another arrangement carried forward from the English Hymnal, but for the OBC it acquired an English translation by Imogen Holst.
Back to English tunes for Job (Come All You Worthy Christian Men. Apparently, there were multiple versions of this in the OBC; William Vann has recorded the two by VW. This is another non-Christmas text; it’s a moralising tale bringing Lazarus and Job together. The Third Tune is a cappella. The Fourth Tune, which has organ accompaniment, is more robust and I think it perhaps suits the words a little better. It was this latter tune that VW subsequently incorporated into Five Variants of ‘Dives and Lazarus’.
Just before the end of the programme we hear the other piece that is not from the OBC. O My Dear Heart is a version of ‘Balulalow’; the word is incorporated as a refrain. However, the words are not the usual Scottish words. Instead, VW set some words specially written by Ursula Wood, as she then was. It seems that the setting was made in 1943 but for whatever reason it lay unpublished until 2009. The music is a free adaptation of an ‘old German tune’. The resulting unaccompanied setting for female voices only is a little gem and it’s sung here with winning sensitivity. I wonder if this is one of the pieces here receiving its first recording?
This disc contains a succession of highly accomplished and sensitive arrangements of pieces from the long carol heritage. There isn’t a dud among them and I hope that this CD will reawaken awareness of what VW – and his colleagues – achieved with the publication of the OBC.
The Choir of the Chapel of the Royal Hospital Chelsea is a wholly professional ensemble. Normally, I understand it numbers 12 singers but here an enlarged group of 23 (7/5/5/6) is involved. Several of the singers’ names regularly appear on the roster of ensembles such as The Tallis Scholars and Stile Antico, so it won’t come as any surprise to learn that the standard of singing is superb. The choir makes a lovely sound which is fresh and appealing and it’s clear from the dynamic contrasts that are achieved that they’re responsive to every wish of their conductor. Although Albion print all the texts, I can promise you’ll scarcely need them, so clear is the diction. That, of course, is also a tribute to the excellent quality of the recording, engineered by Deborah Spanton. Incidentally, a photo in the booklet conforms that when most of these sessions took place the performers were obliged to observe social distancing and stand well apart from each other; despite that complication, ensemble discipline never falters.
Though I mildly questioned a couple of tempo choices, I have no other reservations at all as to the direction given by William Vann. He conducts the choir expertly and I’m particularly impressed by the judicious way in which he’s varied the delivery of each carol so that there’s never a risk of ‘sameness’. The organ parts are fairly discreet but Joshua Ryan makes a fine job of them.
Albion’s documentation is up to the label’s usual very high standards. I’ve mentioned the absorbing essay by Jeremy Summerly about the OBC. In addition, John Francis supplies succinct notes about each piece, giving us lots of interesting knowledge about the sources and origins of each carol.
This is a richly enjoyable collection of VW’s carol arrangements, beautifully performed. It’s a worthy follow-up to A Vaughan Williams Christmas.
Sussex Mummers’ Carol
Solo: Tom Castle
A Virgin Most Pure
Solo: Eloise Irving
Sussex Carol (Second Tune)
Solo: Angus McPhee
Solos: Leah Jackson, Jonathan Hanley
The Salutation Carol
Solos: Eloise Irving, Jonathan Beatty
The Bellman’s Song (Third Tune)
Solo: Angus McPhee
Job (Come All You Worthy Christian Men – Third Tune)
This Endris Night
Solo: Angus McPhee
Sussex Carol (First Tune)
Song of the Crib
Solos: Katy Hill, Jonathan Hanley, Adrian Horsewood
Children’s Song of the Nativity
Solo: Katy Hill
If Ye Would Hear the Angels Sing
Solo: Katy Hill
Quem Pastores - Shepherds Left Their Flocks A-Straying
The Bellman’s Song (Second Tune)
Solo: Eleanor Minney
Joseph and Mary
Solo: Thomas Stoddart
Job (Come All You Worthy Christian Men – Fourth Tune)
The Seven Virgins
Solos: Jenni Harper and Jonathan Hanley
Psalm of Sion
Solo: Katy Hill
O My Dear Heart
God Bless the Master of This House
Eloise Irving, Leah Jackson, Katy Hill, Jenni Harper, Helen Ashby, Kate Ashby, Esther Mallett (sopranos), Rosemary Clifford, Clara Kanter, Charlie Morris, Emma Ashby, Eleanor Minney (altos), Jonathan Beatty, Jonathan Hanley, Tom Castle, Joseph Doody, Simon Wall (tenors), Adrian Horsewood, Angus McPhee, Thomas Stoddart, James Arthur, Nathan Harrison, Nicholas Ashby (basses)