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Issue 107
This article was last updated on
16 January, 2001

More Christmas Reviews:


ALFONSO X Cantigas de Santa Maria: "The Black Madonna". Ensemble Unicorn (Naxos).

ALFONSO X Cantigas de Santa Maria: "Madre de Deus". Micrologus (Opus 111)

J.S.BACH Christmas Oratorio. Various/RIAS-Kammerchor/Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/Jacobs (Harmonia Mundi).

J.S.BACH Christmas Oratorio. Various/Bach Collegium Stuttgart/Rilling (Hänssler)

J.S. BACH The Magnificat - An Inktroduction and Recommended Recordings

CALDARA Vaticini di Pace (Christmas Cantata). Sinfonias. Various/Arcadia Baroque Ensemble/Mallon (Naxos).

HANDEL Messiah - Inktroduction and Links to Selected Recordings.

HILDEGARD of Bingen "A Feather on the Breath of God". Gothic Voices (Hyperion).

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Hodie. Fantasy on Christmas Carols. Various/Wilcocks/Barry (EMI)

COMPILATIONS:

"Angels & Shepherds" - a 17th Century Christmas . Netherlands Bach Society/Cappella Figuralis/Veldhoven (Channel)

"Black Christmas" - Spirituals in the African-American Tradition (ESS.A.Y).

"Christmas Day in the Morning". "Christmas Star". Cambridge Singers & Orchestra/Rutter (Collegium).

"Christmas Night" - Carols of the Nativity. Cambridge Singers/Rutter (Collegium)

"Gabriel’s Greeting" - Medieval English Christmas Music. Sinfonye (Hyperion).

"Miracles" - 13th Century Spanish Songs in Praise of the Virgin Mary. Dufay Collective (Chandos).

"Nativitas" - American Christmas Carols. Kansas City Chorale/Bruffy (Nimbus).

 

Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS
(1872-1958)


Hodie - A Christmas Cantata

Dame Janet Baker mezzo-soprano
Richard Lewis tenor
John Shirley-Quirk baritone
Bach Choir, Choristers of Westminster Abbey
London Symphony Orchestra

conducted by Sir David Wilcocks

Fantasia on Christmas Carols

John Barrow baritone
Choir of Guildford Cathedral
String Orchestra

conducted by Barry Rose

Reissued 2000
EMI Classical CDM 5 67427-2

[71:34] mid-price

 
by Jonathan Yungkans

[Ralph Vaughn Williams] was taught to read by his grandmother from the same book with which she had instructed her younger brother, Charles Darwin. There was a great kerfuffle among the family - like everywhere else - when The Origin of Species was published, and Ralph, when he was about seven, asked his mother about it. His mother was extremely sensible. She said, "The Bible tells us that God made the world in six days. Great-uncle Charles thinks it took rather longer. But we needn't worry - it is equally wonderful either way."

-- From The Book of Musical Anecdotes

Ralph Vaughan WilliamsThat sense of the miraculous in life, nature and the divine permeates much of Ralph Vaughan Williams' choral music, and can transmit itself to listeners in a quantum leap. The music department of the university I attended hosted a yearly Christmas festival called the Feast of Lights, where classical and traditional Christmas music were sung oratorio-style in the university chapel with either organ or orchestral accompaniment. The musical selections changed each year. One of the final numbers in my senior year was "Ring out, ye crystal spheres," the Epilogue from Vaughan Williams' Hodie. On hearing this music, it felt as though the world and eternity literally parted before my ears. I have been hooked on that composer's choral works in general, and this one in particular, ever since.

Like the last three symphonies, Hodie (which translates as "this day" and is pronounced "HO-dee-ay") was a product of Vaughan Williams' old age, and like those works, it flows with a vitality, force and inventiveness that belies concessions to any infirmity or impairment. Written in 1953-4 and first performed at the Three Choirs Festival in Worchester Cathedral on September 8, 1954, it is one of the most serene compositions Vaughan Williams ever wrote, sounding at times otherworldly.

The composer had always wanted to write a large-scale Christmas work, and here he not only got his wish, but perfectly fused the religious spirit of the festival with the specially British overtones with associations to carols sung around the Hertesford countryside. Like Bartók before him, Vaughan Williams uses no specific folk tunes in this work, but by this point in his career he had so synthesized their character into his being that his folk tune-like themes sound fully authentic.

Hodie, as in Benjamin Britten's A Ceremony of Carols, is an "anthology" work, the texts (taken in this case from the Bible, Milton and Thomas Hardy, among other sources) skillfully selected to reflect both the Christmas theme and the different aspects of the composer's personal style. The oratorio is linked together by narration of the Nativity from the Gospels by boy choristers, accompanied by organ - a compositional device used by Bach in his Passions, for which Vaughan Williams had a deep love.

A deep affection for this work permeates this performance, as well. Recorded in 1965 under the direction of Sir David Wilcocks, and sounding incredibly good in its digital remastering, it is one of those few recordings that make a listener wonder, "How often do they get everything right?"

The mid-1960s were a halcyon period for EMI in terms of recording quality, and the sound in many performances from that period has never been bettered. In this recording, there is power and clarity, but also a transparency, an almost palpable sense of atmosphere and an uncanny feel for the undercurrents swirling through Vaughan Williams' music, that were several of Wilcocks' hallmarks - all excellently captured by the EMI engineers. Compared to this, the digital recording under Richard Hickox, made 25 years later (and no longer available), sounds positively gray.

The London Symphony and Bach Choir perform as though on a holy crusade, giving their all and making this music leap from the speakers in the more bounding sections, and playing and singing will all due reverence in the quieter ones. Not only that, but the delicacy Wilcocks brings to this score allows one to hear layers of orchestral detail left buried in the Hickox recording, showing this work to be as inventively scored at times as the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies. The percussion work in the Prologue and the narrative "And there were in the same country" is particularly magical, but this work is full of surprises

The Choristers of Westminster Abbey and organist Sir Philip Ledger also deserve special mention. These boys sing in the narratives with a pure, beatific tone and a musical maturity far beyond their years, which is a joy to hear. Ledger does not overwhelm then, but finds the right amount of tone to accompany unassumingly without ever becoming inaudible, and never lets his part become less than compelling - a near-unearthly balancing act.

And if ever there were a "dream team" of soloists to sing this work, it is definitely here. Richard Lewis is haunting as the angel in the first narration (an excerpt strongly reminiscent of the Sinfonia Antarctica - and just as powerful and briefly frightening). He captures the portentousness of the third narration and the mystic quality of the hymn "Bright portals of the sky" to perfection. The angel's part, written in a high falsetto to make it more ethereal sounding, can be murderous for terrestrial tenors to sing. Lewis handles it masterly, with no trace of strain whatsoever.

Dame Janet Baker's voice is sturdy, clear and exquisite in "It was the winter wild"; she captures the darker twists and turns that occasionally break through the pleasing surface of this song with telling effect, yet shines throughout like a welcome beacon. She is equally touching in the warm motherly grace of the "Lullaby."

John Shirley-Quirk is quietly stunning in "The Oxen," the deep, beefy tone of his voice a perfect fit to Hardy's words. He is equally pleasing in the Pastorale which follows, with impeccable musical manners and an excellent reading of George Herbert's poem. His performance of the third verse, "I will go searching, till I find a sun," has an unforced yet gently resolute determination that is touching, and builds to a stirring climax. And in the opening duet of "Ring out, ye crystal spheres," he not only blends exquisitely with Baker but also fully expresses the sheer wonder of heavenly and earthly joy that Vaughan Williams (right) evokes so well.

As a preface to Hodie, EMI has given us Barry Rose's 1966 performance of the Fantasy on Christmas Carols. Vaughan Williams based this work, written in 1912, on four traditional carols - one of which, "There is a fountain," he quotes in music but not in text - and added fragments of other well-known tunes such as "The First Nowell [Noël]," "A Virgin Unspotted" and "The Wassail Bough."

Though not quite in the same league as Hodie, the Fantasy is a charming and moving work - the perfect appetizer for the feast that follows - and Rose, John Barrow and the Choir of Guildford Cathedral make a good case for it. Barrow's voice is not as solid as Shirley-Quirk's but is pleasant despite a slightly quavery quality. Nor is this performance as clearly recorded as the other work. The echo of Guildford Cathedral plays some havoc here, but once some allowances are made, the ear adjusts to the enlarged spatial acoustic.

Wilcocks' Hodie remains a miraculous recording, one in which the performers are fully up to the vision of Vaughan Williams' music. Regardless of whether you are tired of the Nutcracker, Handel's Messiah or Bach's Christmas Oratorio, do not pass up this disc. Buy it with all due speed. You will not regret it.

Bibliography:
Lebrecht, Norman, The Book of Musical Anecdotes (New York: The Free Press, 1985), 279-280, no. 651.

 

JONATHAN YUNGKANS does not like Christmas music in general, but he can handle BBV (Bach, Britten and Vaughn Williams) as long as it is good. Real good.

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