I thought I’d better include at least one CD with a bit of orchestral music on it, purely for the sake of variety, but this isn’t simply a tokenistic choice.
Vaughan Williams is a composer whose appeal sometimes eludes me. There can be a tendency towards aimlessness in his music that fails to engage me. Even periodically in the sumptuous Serenade to Music that opens this disc I sense an offputtingly meandering quality. That said, even the legendary sixteen singers who premiered the piece in 1938 cannot have given it greater advocacy than the all-star cast of this recording. Some names picked at random – Amanda Roocroft, John Mark Ainsley, Alan Opie, Gwynne Howell, Thomas Allen, Sarah Walker, Catherine Wyn-Rogers… It sets words from The Merchant of Venice, and each soloist, to paraphrase Antonio, plays his part, and beautifully so.
Edward Greenfield, writing in Gramophone, is acute in his observation that “In due course this could be the ideal Christmas present”. Now, just as twenty years ago when it first came out, it provides an ideal antidote to the more commercial and/or predictable offerings that appear in shops at that time of year. There are those who say it’s not Christmas until they’ve heard ‘Jingle Bells’ or ‘O come, all ye faithful’. For me it’s the Fantasia on Christmas Carols more than anything else that puts me in festive mood, evoking memories of singing it at school. There’s undoubtedly a power and a joy to be found in good performances of the piece by amateur choirs at Christmas, but the one offered here, with Thomas Allen as a soloist, is just a bit special. Christopher Palmer’s liner notes quote Michael Kennedy’s description of the piece’s conclusion: “the wassailers’ voices vanish into the distance, across the snow-covered fields and away into the night.” This hushed magic is captured perfectly by the Corydon Singers.
Allen is also in the soloist in the Five Mystical Songs, one of Vaughan Williams’ least resistible scores. He is at his majestic best in ‘Easter’ (“Rise, heart; thy Lord is risen”), perhaps my favourite of the songs. In Allen’s absence, the Corydon Singers shine in the concluding ‘Antiphon’ (“Let all the world in every corner sing, My God and King!”) while the brass of the English Chamber Orchestra ring out gloriously.
The final item is the curious suite Flos Campi, scored for viola, wordless chorus and small orchestra. It can be puzzling exactly what to make of the music (Holst was notably nonplussed by it), but it doesn’t feel remotely out of place here. There is a not quite tangible mysticism that connects it to the other three works, and makes it a perfect conclusion to the disc. Nobuko Imai is the sensitive soloist.