Ralph Vaughan Williams
Fantasia on Christmas Carols
FANTASIA: John Barrow, baritone
Choir of Guildford Cathedral
Barry Rose, conductor
HODIE: Janet Baker, mezzosoprano; Richard Lewis, tenor; John Shirley-Quirk, baritone
Choristers of Westminster Abbey
London Symphony Orchestra
David Willcocks, conductor
Warner Classics, 2000
This is one of the most classical Christmas recordings, not only because the two works (Ralph Vaughan William’s Fantasia on Christmas Carols and Hodie) have been recorded in 1966 and 1965 respectively and therefore have accompanied many other Christmas, but also because of their intrinsic value. In this newly digitally remastered recording, the essence of these two favourites can be savoured.
Despite the fact that the Fantasia and Hodie have not been recorded together, they are extraordinary well matched and the conduction of Sir David Willcocks (Hodie) succeeds without trouble to that of Barry Rose (Fantasia), conveying an idea of continuity, as if the Fantasia could be considered a prologue to the Christmas cantata.
The works belong to two different stages of Vaughan Williams’s career. The Fantasia of Christmas Carols dates to 1912 and is influenced by early folk music, from which Vaughan Williams’s borrowed several tunes also for another of his work, written just six years before, the English Hymnal. The composer’s interest in early Christmas music was not limited to these works as in 1920 he published Twelve Traditional Christmas Carols from Herefordshire and in 1926 he wrote On Christmas Night, later performed in London as A Christmas Carol Suite. Finally, in 1958 Vaughan Williams’s started the composition of Hodie, the most prominent among his Christmas works, completing it just few months before his death.
As for the performance, the present recording offers one of the finest achievements for both compositions. The Fantasia on Christmas Carols features the voices of the gorgeous Choir of Guildford Cathedral and the wonderful, baritonal voice of John Barrow who, with his warmth and empathy, conveys the true essence of this work of simple and yet compelling beauty. Barry Rose’s conduction, anyway, is the most evocative and powerful feature, just listen to the soft accompaniment of This is the truth sent from above, the exquisite touch of Come all you worthy gentlemen and the joyful On Christmas night all Christians sing. Overall, Rose offers a warm and sensitive conduction that gives a refined splendour to the Fantasia.
Willcocks is no less remarkable in Hodie, so that it is impossible to decide which one between the conductors is better – if it is really necessary to make a choice. The delicacy and tenderness radiating from this rendition of the work cannot hide that the conductor leads the orchestra with nerve and that gentleness does not mean that he has forgotten energy, as he proves precisely at the beginning, in the prologue Nowell! Nowell! and again in the tenor’s hymn Bright portals of the sky and in The March of the Three Kings. Anyway, the soft atmosphere of the other pieces is the true gem of the recording, especially in the six Narrations.
In addition, we listen to the great voices of mezzosoprano Janet Baker (hear for example her sweet, moving singing in the song It was the winter wild), of tenor Richard Lewis (his energetic Bright portals of the sky is remarkable) and of baritone John Shirley-Quirk (in The Oxen and in The Shepherds Returned he gives meaning to every word and his singing is soft and smooth). The three fine singers add a touch of elegant sensitivity to Hodie that without them would have been irretrievably lost, despite the fact that the Bach Choir and the Choristers of Westminster Abbey are outstanding by their own right. The singing of the Cherubim is not so different from theirs, for sure.
There is little doubt why this recording of Fantasia on Christmas Carols and Hodie has been a long-time favourite: it is simply perfect and the ineffable beauty of Vaughan Williams’s two works is wonderfully highlighted by orchestras and voices, not to speak of the two remarkable conductions of Rose and Willcocks. Really, this is one of the best recordings not only for Christmas time, but for every time of the year.