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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
A Vaughan Williams Christmas
Eight Traditional English Carols (1919) [22:53]
Two carols (1945) [4:57]
Five carols from The Oxford Book of Carols (1928) [16:41]
Nine Carols for male voices (1941) [25:49]
Hugh Rowlands (organ)
Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea William Vann
rec. 2018, St. Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead, London
Texts included
ALBION RECORDS ALBCD035 [70:22]

Not long ago I admired very much a disc of Vaughan Williams recorded premieres – well, all but one item – sung by the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea under the direction of William Vann. I was delighted, therefore, to receive their second VW album. This focuses on the composer’s output of small-scale choral works for Christmas. It isn’t quite so chock-full of first recordings as was the previous disc. However, though one or two of the carol settings – such as O Little Town of Bethlehem and the wonderful The Truth Sent from Above – will be familiar to most collectors there are quite a number which, even if previously recorded, will be new to many people, as they were to me. There are some premieres: The Two Carols of 1945 are new to the VW discography, and while a couple of the Nine Carols for male voices have been recorded before, this is the first outing on disc for the full set.

The set of Eight Traditional English Carols were published by VW when he returned from war-time service. They are a small part of the treasure trove of folk songs that he collected in happier times before the First World War. The carols were set in two ways: for solo voice with piano or organ accompaniment or for a cappella four-part choir. I understand that the solo voice versions appeared together on an earlier Albion disc, which I’ve not heard (On Christmas Day, ALBCD013). This present recording gives us, in effect, the best of both worlds, combining the solo and choral versions of the carols and thus generating welcome variety of presentation.

No fewer that three of the carols were collected during what must have been a pretty fruitful expedition to Castleton, Derbyshire in 1908 where VW met a singer by the name of Mr Hall: And All in the Morning, Down in Yon Forest, and The Birth of the Saviour. I particularly liked the first of these; it’s a narrative carol, telling the story of Christ from his birth through to Easter and it’s set to a fine, very English tune. In the following year, 1909, VW collected a tune that will forever be associated with him: The Truth Sent from Above. By the time the Eight Traditional English Carols appeared, he had already used this great, haunting tune in his Fantasia on Christmas Carols (1912). The 1919 arrangement is less elaborate but the memorable nature of the tune, and the story it carries, still shine through. The Twelve Apostles was collected in Staffordshire and it’s a bit of a stretch to regard it as a Christmas piece since Christmas only gets a mention in the last of the eight verses. However, its inclusion is a pertinent reminder that in English traditional music, if I may adapt a slogan, a Carol is not just for Christmas. It’s personally pleasing that the set concludes with Wassail Song because this jolly song was collected in my native county of Yorkshire. These eight arrangements are pretty straightforward but that’s a large part of their appeal: they communicate directly and strongly with the listener, as was always the intention from the very origins of these tunes and words. VW’s accompaniments are good and tasteful. In particular they never over-elaborate or draw attention away from the basic material in the way that, say, Benjamin Britten too often did, I feel, in his folksong arrangements.

The Two Carols are very welcome on disc for the first time. Come Love We God is VW’s arrangement of an old German tune – a jolly good one. He sets words slightly adapted by Ursula, from an early seventeenth century English source. There is a Flower is rather unusual in that though it was published under VW’s name it seems he didn’t have much to do with it. The music is our old friend, Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen harmonised by Michael Praetorius. The words are a free English translation by Ursula.

When The Oxford Book of Carols was published in 1928 Vaughan Williams contributed four original carols and no less than 31 arrangements. Here William Vann and his choir give us the four specially composed carols and perhaps the most famous of all the arrangements: O Little Town of Bethlehem. This has so firmly embedded itself in the lexicon of Christmas carols as to render comment almost superfluous – most choir members, for example, will know without being told that it can be found on page 92 of Carols for Choirs. it’s good, though, to remind ourselves of the debt that we owe to VW who provided such a fine staple of the Christmas repertoire Here it’s performed with all five verses sung to his four-part harmony but without the fine last verse descant subsequently added by Thomas Armstrong.

Of the other four, original compositions, The Golden Carol is given an exuberant, springing unison melody; there’s an organ accompaniment, as there is for all of these carols. Wither's Rocking Hymn features an entrancingly beautiful melody which is sung by soloists, Eloise Irving and Edward Hughes. The tune seems especially suited to Miss Irving’s voice. Snow in the Street is set to a robust, folk-like tune. The last of the four, Blake’s Cradle Song, is my own favourite. This is a ravishing gentle lullaby in which Katy Hill and Adrian Horsewood are the persuasive soloists.

The Nine Carols for male voices had an unusual origin. VW was commissioned by the British Council to make these arrangements for the benefit of British troops stationed on war-time service in Iceland in 1941. There were twelve arrangements in all, of which OUP published the nine here recorded. In his notes, John Francis offers two intriguing speculations. One is that the roots of at least some of these arrangements may lie in the First World War when VW formed and conducted choirs drawn from the troops with whom he was serving. The other is that his own father, Eric Francis served with the British army in Iceland for 18 months from 1940 and may possibly have heard these carol arrangements; it would be nice to think so. The settings are for TTBB. They may have been designed for serving soldiers to sing but in no way did VW “dumb down”. These arrangements require good singers on all four parts and the settings themselves are sophisticated and resourceful though, as with the Eight Traditional English Carols they speak very directly to the listener.

So, for instance, God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen is robust, as it should be, but I noted an interesting first tenor line. By contrast, As Joseph Was A-Walking is smooth and pleasingly lyrical with good harmonies: the result is rather lovely. The Mummers’ Carol has a lovely tune and is thoughtfully set. The Lord at First features another splendid, quintessentially English tune. The tune itself is haunting and all the more so when sung, as here, by unaccompanied male voices. As I listened it seemed to me that a setting like this would have had a very emotional effect on troops stationed far from home and families in war time. There’s one little anomaly in the setting of Coventry Carol: the words ‘O sisters too, how may we do’ becomes ‘O brothers too, how may we do’. The use of male voices here gives the carol a somewhat dark, medieval feel, which is quite appropriate. I Saw Three Ships gets an ebullient treatment, full of life. This is a prime example of VW making no “dumbing down” concessions in these arrangements: the army would have needed some very good singers to do justice to this setting. The collection ends with another tune that had a special place in VW’s affections and which he used more than once in his career. The text of Dives and Lazarus isn’t really concerned with Christmas but, frankly, who cares when the tune is so distinctive and the arrangement so sympathetic.

Those nine carols are expertly sung by the male voices of the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea. The singing is just as fine and just as enjoyable when female voices are added to the mix in the other items. This is the third disc I’ve heard by William Vann and his choir in recent weeks – one was a disc issued by another label – and I’ve been seriously impressed each time. Here is a flexible, well-blended ensemble whose singing gives consistent pleasure. The recording was made in the same venue as the choir’s previous Albion disc and the same technical team of producer Andrew Walton and engineer Deborah Spanton was on hand: once again they have achieved excellent results. As well as recording the choir very pleasingly, they have achieved a very good balance with the organ, which is played with great accomplishment by Hugh Rowlands.

Albion never disappoint when it comes to documentation and this latest release continues that trend. All the texts are provided – though, in truth the choir’s excellent diction renders the provision of texts a luxury rather than a necessity. John Francis provides knowledgeable and eminently readable notes.

There’s a lot of less than familiar material here but all of it is well worth hearing, especially in such expert performances.

John Quinn


Contents
Eight Traditional English Carols (1919) [22:53]
And All in the Morning
On Christmas Night
The Twelve Apostles
Down in Yon Forest
May Day Carol
The Truth Sent from Above
The Birth of the Saviour
Wassail Song
Two carols (1945) [4:57]
Come Love We God
There is a Flower
From The Oxford Book of Carols (1928) [16:41]
O Little Town of Bethlehem
The Golden Carol
Wither's Rocking Hymn
Snow in the Street
Blake’s Cradle Song
Nine Carols for male voices (1941) [25:49]
God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen
As Joseph Was A-Walking (Cherry Tree Carol)
Mummers’ Carol
The First Nowell
The Lord at First
Coventry Carol
I Saw Three Ships
A Virgin Most Pure
Dives and Lazarus

 

 




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