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CD Review

Ralph Vaughan Williams

  • Toward the Unknown Region (Song for Chorus & Orchestra)
  • Willow-Wood (Cantata for Baritone & Orchestra)
  • The Voice out of the Whirlwind (Motet for Chorus & Orchestra)
  • Five Variants of Dives & Lazarus for Strings & Harp
  • The Sons of Light (Cantata for Chorus & Orchestra)
Roderick Williams, baritone
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra & Choir/David Lloyd-Jones
Naxos 8.557798 61:51
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This CD of mostly choral works has garnered some rave reviews in England, and it is easy to see why: it contains a mixture of familiar and rare Vaughan Williams compositions in excellent performances and vivid sound. I've listed the works as they appear on the CD, but Willow-Wood is billed first on the cover and receives the most attention in Lewis Foreman's insightful booklet notes. Naxos also claims this as the première recording of the piece, and their assertion appears correct. Indeed, the work has apparently not been performed in any venue since its 1909 première.

It's hard to understand Willow-Wood's neglect. One would think the English would have programmed so fine a piece with some regularity down through the years. It is a dark creation, its writing reminiscent of the composer's A Sea Symphony (1903-09), but at times divulging something of the tougher fabric found in Flos Campi (1925), yet also some of the warmth of the 1938 A Serenade to Music. In the end, the work, set to a text by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, must be judged a stunning rediscovery, even if some won't hear it as a full-blown masterpiece. Lloyd-Jones' splendid reading and Roderick Williams' rich baritone voice make this an essential disc for the Vaughan Williams enthusiast, even if little else of consequence were being offered here – but plenty more riches crowd this CD.

Toward the Unknown Region is fairly standard Vaughan Williams, at least in England. Back in 1989 Chandos released a version of this piece led by Bryden Thomson, coupled with the austere and masterly Seventh Symphony (Sinfonia Antartica). That performance was marginally preferable to this one. The Naxos features better orchestral sound, but the Chandos choral sonics had greater presence and Thomson's reading conveyed a more compelling epic sense. Lloyd-Jones' interpretation, however, is nearly as good and the rest of the offerings here are certainly worthwhile.

The popular Five Variants of Dives (pronounced Dye-vess) and Lazarus is given a splendid performance by the Liverpool players and Lloyd-Jones, their reading as good as any I've encountered. What a fine work this is. The five-minute motet, The Voice out of the Whirlwind, is an attractive, though less rewarding work.

The Sons of Light (1951), lasting about twenty minutes, is a cantata of considerable substance. It is cast in three parts – Darkness and Light, The Song of the Zodiac, and The Messengers of Speech – with a text by Ursula Wood, who would become the composer's second wife. It is exotic, energetic, and at times wild, all qualities one could also ascribe to the Vaughan Williams' Eighth Symphony (1953-56), which is sonically evoked time and again in this imaginative piece. Again, Lloyd-Jones and company turn in fine work, to close out this, one of the finest Vaughan Williams' CDs of the past decade or so. Urgently recommended!

Copyright © 2006, Robert Cummings