Mstation Classical Reviews

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Sat, 09 Dec 2006

Vaughan Williams


Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)

Toward the Unknown Region (Song for Chorus and Orchestra) [11.39]

Willow Wood (Cantata for Baritone and Orchestra) [13.55]

The Voice out of the Whirlwind (Motet for Chorus and Orchestra) [5.15]

Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus (for Strings and Harp) [11.38]

The Sons of Light (Cantata for Chorus and Orchestra) [19.24]

Roderick Williams (baritone)

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra / David Lloyd Jones

rec Feb 2005, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, England DDD

NAXOS 8.557798 [61.51]

It is quite remarkable that in the early 21st century there are still works by a composer of the importance of Ralph Vaughan Williams that have not been recorded. Thus, this Naxos disc steals a march on many others by presenting the Cantata for Baritone and Orchestra Willow Wood on disc for the first time. It is a substantial work making use of four interlinked sonnets from the collection The House of Life by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a source of texts for a number of VW's early works for voices and orchestra. This is classic VW stuff, contrasting the bluff and vigorous writing for baritone redolent of his Songs of Travel with the sublime sound of a women's chorus, particularly effective when they vocalise without text.

The chorus has a few rougher patches in the opening work, Toward the Unknown Region wherein the tenors are a little strained, albeit in extremely climactic music. This is stuff of the sort that David Lloyd Jones does very well - anybody who has heard his acclaimed Bax Symphonies cycle on Naxos will be familiar with his powers to sculpt these English works into something very impressive. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic rises to the occasions. This orchestra has had some rough times over recent years, but the early 21st century seems to see them coming round the corner of those, and this recording has them in excellent sound. Especially pleasing is a fine reading of Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus - undoubtedly one of VW's best orchestral works, in the same sort of vein as the famous Tallis Fantasia. Here the great tune “Dives and Lazarus” (as used for the hymn “I heard the voice of Jesus say”) sweeps along with consummate majesty, and VW's treatment of the variations (or “variants” as he calls them, for they are more changes of mode than real variations of the original material) shows the same mastery of space and expanse that was so striking in the Tallis Fantasia.

The Voice out of the Whirlwind, while a very fine work, suffers from some rather variable intonation in the choir, who are not really on a par with the quality of the orchestra. There is little chance of hearing the words in this, unfortunately. The Cantata The Sons of Light is another major work not well known. Possibly suffering from having been composed for a schools choir festival, VW makes no concessions to the age of performers and the work is a large-scale composition of considerable interest, here given a performance that is worthy of repeated listening and should help rescue an important piece of VW's output.

© 2006 Peter Wells

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Strauss tone poem


Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)

Eine Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony) Op. 64 (1911) [54.14]

Staatskapelle Weimar/Antoni Wit

rec July 2006, Weimarhalle, Weimar, Germany DDD

NAXOS 8.557811 [54.14]

Eine Alpensinfonie is the last of Strauss' remarkable series of tone poems. Only in length does it approach the “symphony” of the title but in conception and effect it is every bit the grand, high-romantic symphonic outburst that one would expect of a composer like Richard Strauss. It has always been regarded as one of his most colourful and tremendous works. And this new Naxos recording has also come in for significant praise in the musical press. Principally the reason is that the orchestra, the Staatskapelle Weimar, under the Pole Antoni Wit, are a not well-known regional band, of the type that abounds in a country as large and cultured as Germany. However, the performance and quality of the playing has rather taken the musical press by surprise. It is a bit like suddenly finding that Leicester, or Dundee (for example) is possessed of an absolutely world rate orchestra. Weimar is no vast cultural metropolis and yet one is has to agree wholeheartedly with one's colleagues in the print media that here the Staatskapelle Weimar turns on a performance of absolutely first rank quality.

The opening of the symphony (Nacht - Night) begins with the darkest of rumblings in the contra bassoon and double basses. Character is established from the absolute outset. This is followed by the brief but wonderful outburst of Strauss's glorious Sonnenaufgang (Sunrise) bringing immediate comparisons with Ravel's almost contemporaneous sunrise in Daphnis and Chloe. The work is painted over a vast canvas in 22 continuous movements, each with a descriptive title. Some are mere sketches of an impression, such as the 48-second Wanderung neben dem Bache (Wandering by the Stream) in which Antoni Wit balances the strings and winds with a beautiful grace and growth before the even shorter (14 seconds) burst of horns and triangle leaps over the edge Am Wasserfall (At the Waterfall).

These short sections do not actually appear sectional at all; they are merely handy demarcations to go with the titles appended in the score. The sense of growth as the mountaineering continues is inexorable and, indeed gives the impression of symphonic development that is technically lacking from the tone-poem structure. By the time of Auf dem Gipfel (On the Summit) Strauss has a lengthy peroration of incomparable magnificence. Here once again the balance of parts is crucially important. It is far too easy to unleash the trombones and horns into a bombastic and overblown summit of Germanic pomposity. Wit avoids this skilfully with the help of really top class horn playing giving grandeur without overpowering the texture. High-class string and wind playing makes for a splendid climax. The real power of the heavy brass is finally unleashed in the storm towards the end of the work. The recording quality is excellent here; powerful and full without any feel of over balancing.

The Alpine Symphony has always been a fabulous orchestral showpiece and, in many respects, it is hard to go wrong with it given a half decent orchestra. This Naxos disc goes well beyond that and provides a reading and a recording that will be hard for the full-price labels to beat. It is probably worth looking for other recent recordings by the Staatskapelle Weimar, if this disc is anything to go by.

© 2006 Peter Wells

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New English Hymnal



The Choir of Newcastle Cathedral

Directed by Scott Farrell with Michael Dutton (organ)

rec Jan 2005, Newcastle Cathedral DDD


Why? Well, presumably because, having finished their substantial project to record just about every setting of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis canticles sung in the Anglican Service of Evensong, Priory were casting around for a new large-scale project to work on. The New English Hymnal is the hymnbook used in most English choral foundations, the cathedrals and college chapels that maintain professional choirs and sing daily services, so it probably seemed a good idea at the time.

In hindsight they may be regretting it, because the musical variety that was possible in recording settings of the Evening Canticles, or of the great corpus of Anglican anthems just isn't there in collections of hymns. The 25 tracks on this disc all sound like hymns. They may be interesting hymns but there is such a thing as a surfeit, and, to be frank, not all hymns are as good as others. However, in recording a “complete” anything you immediately give away any control over the musical quality of what you are recording; the dross goes in on the same basis as the great.

It is not the happiest of openings for this disc, as On Jordan's bank the Baptist's cry announces less that the Lord is nigh than that the choir of Newcastle Cathedral makes a harsh sound. This remains throughout the disc, notwithstanding some good singing from the men, the sound of the boys, while confident and generally reasonable in tuning, is pretty well unvaried in timbre and constantly hard of sound, verging on the nasal. At least it is consistent.

The other thing that strikes one as essential if listening to a disc of hymns is that, given that the whole structure of hymns is strophic (the same music for each verse, with the words changing) the words must be discernable. The acid test is to take a hymn that is less well known (track 8 Christian, dost thou see them NEH288 perhaps) and listen without the booklet in front of one. What is the hymn about? I'm afraid I can't tell you because I can't make out a single word, even in the verse sung by a gentleman soloist. This is the consistent problem throughout the disc, and if one can't hear the words, what's the point of listening to hymns? As a further test, track 9 God everlasting, wonderful and holy is a well-known hymn, but will the second line jolt the memory and be recognisable? Sorry, still no idea.

The disc is nicely presented, but one can really only say “it's alright; if you like that sort of thing.”

© 2006 Peter Wells

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