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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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Here's an essential CD for everyone who loves or admires the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Most of these works are rare on CD – this is Willow-Wood's first recording – but there's no second-rate music here, and the performances could scarcely be bettered.

Willow-Wood is a setting of four sonnets from Dante Gabriel Rossetti's The House of Life. Its origins were a work for baritone and piano dating from 1903. Vaughan Williams later orchestrated it, and still later added a women's chorus. I cannot account for its obscurity. Its word-setting is skillful, and the music is characterized by the impressionistic melodiousness typical of Vaughan Williams in this early part of his career.

The Sons of Light, scored for children's chorus and orchestra, is hardly better known. This is a much later work, commissioned in 1951 by the English Ministry of Education. At first the composer resisted, claiming inexperience in writing for children's voices. Unsurprisingly, the work as it was eventually completed can be sung by a chorus of adults – as it is here. It is in three movements, the first ("Darkness and Light") concerns the movement of the sun, stars, and planets across the sky, and alludes to Greek mythology. "The Song of the Zodiac" describes the twelve zodiacal constellations. The final movement ("The Messengers of Speech") depicts the creation of man's ability to speak and communicate.

The choral motet The Voice out of the Whirlwind (1947, orchestrated in 1951) is a brief setting of several verses from the Book of Job in which God challenges Job, "gird up thy loins now like a man… deck thyself now with majesty and excellency; and array thyself with glory and beauty." Like much of The Sons of Light, the music strides forward with a splendor that seems almost martial; the booklet note annotator aptly describes it as "sturdy." Logically enough, Vaughan Williams adapted music from his "masque" Job when preparing this choral motet.

Turning to more familiar works, we have the gloriously positive "song for chorus and orchestra" called Toward the Unknown Region (a Walt Whitman setting composed around the time of the Sea Symphony), and, the only non-vocal work on this CD, Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, scored for strings with harp, and premièred in 1939. The original tune, an English carol, dates back to the 1500s, and has come down through the ages in several different forms… which is why these are "variants" and not simply "variations."

David Lloyd-Jones is really starting to make a name for himself with his many recordings for Naxos. (He is interviewed in the January/February 2006 issue of Fanfare.) His career started as long ago as 1959, so he is no newcomer, but rather a seasoned professional who is now receiving the international exposure that he deserves. These are expertly prepared and wonderfully atmospheric readings, and the orchestral and choral work is of the highest standard. Roderick Williams makes the most of the text and sings mellifluously in Willow-Wood.

Copyright © 2006, Raymond Tuttle