Vaughan Williams: Hodie; Fantasia On Christmas Carols

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As revered as Vaughan Williams is among choral music fans, it's remarkable that none of his original Christmas pieces has achieved the kind of popularity or concert-ubiquitousness you might expect (on the scale of, say, Darke's In the bleak midwinter, or on a larger scale, Britten's A Ceremony of Carols), especially considering the significant number of Christmas-themed works he wrote and his expertise as a composer for voices. The Fantasia on Christmas Carols might have been such a work, and it's certainly attractive enough, full of wonderful tunes, scored to maximize a festive mood. Perhaps it is that very scoring--for orchestra and requiring a baritone soloist--that prevents more frequent programming; or perhaps it's the style, which is formulaic (especially for the chorus) and, especially in the big, recurring climaxes, seems too heavily orchestrated, losing both the choir and--except for the opening "The truth sent from above"--the essentially simple character of the carols.

That's not to say the Fantasia isn't a good piece or that it doesn't accomplish its purpose--to reflect and celebrate the wonder, mystery, and joyful spirit of Christmas; but its success depends largely on a strong baritone soloist and a first-rate orchestra, as well as achieving good balances among the three performing components. And that's mostly what we have here, save for baritone Stephen Gadd's tendency toward a wide vibrato that obscures pitch, and balances that invariably favor the orchestra in louder sections. The chorus certainly conveys the "joyful spirit" mentioned above, and the orchestra is undeniably "first-rate". However, there are better overall renditions of the Fantasia on disc, namely the Corydon Singers on Hyperion and Cambridge Singers on Collegium, both of which accomplish the festive mood with better sound, more judicious balances, and better soloists.

For many listeners, however, the reason to own this recording is the Hodie, which is virtually non-existent in the catalog (apparently only one other version--the one from King's College on EMI, recorded in 1965--is currently available). This nearly hour-long work follows the essential parts of the Christmas story, using choruses, vocal solos, and a periodic "narration", sung in unison chant by a children's choir accompanied by organ, which lends a "church-y" aspect to this "Christmas Cantata". The choruses represent some of Vaughan Williams' more engaging efforts in the genre, and a few of these--particularly the a cappella The blessed Son of God--are often sung separately as concert pieces.

Several of the solo songs show why Vaughan Williams is justly famed for his skill in the genre--It was the winter cold; The shepherds sing; Bright portals of the sky--and these are expertly sung (respectively) by soprano Janice Watson, baritone Stephen Gadd, and tenor Peter Hoare. Again, the choruses and orchestra are top-notch, and if the orchestration can be more than a little Hollywood-ish at times and the narrations somewhat meandering, overall this is a very satisfying work that truly fills the concert hall with the sense of occasion that the real Christmas story deserves.

--David Vernier,

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8570439

  • UPC: 747313043972

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Ralph Vaughan Williams

  • Conductor: Hilary Davan Wetton

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Bramley St Catherine's Chamber Choir, Guildford Choral Society Choir, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

  • Performer: Janice Watson, Peter Hoare, Stephen Gadd