Vaughan Williams: The Sons Of Light; Holst, Parry

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One of Parry's finest works, magnificently performed, and the best of the two available recordings of "The Sons of Light".

This was the first recording of "The Sons of Light". When I reviewed the second recording, by David Lloyd-Jones on Naxos, I found the Lyrita preferable, with more presence to the recording, more vital conducting and better choral diction. At that time there still seemed to be no prospect of the many Lyrita treasures ever seeing the light of day again. Now things are changing and this is the recording to get.

I referred in my review to the "coursing energy and phenomenal range of colour" of the work. It is, in its way, one of Vaughan Williams’s most impressive. You would certainly never imagine it was written to be sung by children – 1,150 of them at the first performance in 1951, with the accompaniment of the LPO under Boult. What worries me is that, every time I come to it, I find I don’t remember it. It’s not just that the themes don’t stay in my mind. As the work plays I don’t get any sense of recognition – "Ah, I remember that bit now". I hear it as a work I’ve never heard before. This is not a problem I have with Vaughan Williams generally.

Though I also had the LP containing "The Mystic Trumpeter" I never really listened to it often enough to say whether it sticks in my mind or not. I should think it unlikely. I find the same problem here as with Vaughan Williams’s "Willow-Wood", which was also on the Naxos/Lloyd-Jones disc. The composer has very skilfully set the poem line by line, with meaningful upward swoops for important words, pregnant key-changes and so on. He’s produced a nice wall-paper backing to a poem that is far more exciting when it’s simply read. But composition is about creation. It is a constructive process. If you start with an exhilarating poem and finish with a piece of music with about as much tension as a wet lettuce, is this to be defined as composition or decomposition? A work for Holst completists only. The performance is good enough, though Armstrong’s voice sometimes billows when it should soar. Holst seems to have a whopping Wagnerian soprano voice in mind and Armstrong, for all her virtues, was not exactly that. There is also a touch of opaqueness to some of her notes on the CD, though not on the LP.

The Parry is a far more memorable work. The composer had the good sense to choose a poem which provides a refrain. He does not repeat the same music every time but provides a new variation of it. The result is a sort of variation rondo form, combining continuous development with structural unity. Parry is at his finest and most eloquent throughout, from the lilting opening to the dancing energy of the later stanzas. There is a satisfying build-up which dies away to a touching close. There is also a lovely solo stanza, beautifully sung by Teresa Cahill. John Quinn noted in his review that her word underlay at the end of this stanza was at variance with the new edition he was using and wondered if the edition had been revised. I doubt it; I have a copy of the original edition and the textual underlay is different from what is sung there, too. Quite simply, the music as written calls unrealistically for a third lung, so I imagine Cahill herself changed the underlay in order to take a breath in the middle. Composers who aren’t singers miscalculate in this way more often than you’d expect – even Verdi did sometimes. Read John’s review, by the way; he has had the good fortune to sing in a rare performance of the work and his enthusiasm comes from within. But did the soprano at that performance cope with that long phrase in a single breath?

If Parry is at his best, so is Willcocks. It’s a thrilling performance from a great choral conductor. This is the only recording of the piece so far, but now it’s available again we hardly need another. Just for the record, I have always thought Cahill a little insecure in her opening phrase, but thereafter she is splendid. She has a lovely disc of R. Strauss and Rachmaninov to her credit and, unlike Sheila Armstrong in "The Mystic Trumpeter", her voice doesn’t billow, it soars.

Maybe in 1912 the Parry seemed old-fashioned. In 2007 it just seems timeless.

Outstanding recordings, as always with Lyrita, and notes by Ursula Vaughan Williams, Bernard Benoliel and Imogen Holst.

-- Christopher Howell, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: SRCD270

  • UPC: 5020926027023

  • Label: Lyrita

  • Composer: Charles Hubert Parry, Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams

  • Conductor: David Atherton, Sir David Willcocks

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Bach Choir, London Philharmonic Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, Royal College of Music Choir

  • Performer: Sheila Armstrong, Sir David Willcocks, Teresa Cahill