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CD Review

Ralph Vaughan Williams

Works for Chorus and Orchestra

  • Symphony #5
  • Serenade to Music (Version for Chorus & Orchestra) *
  • Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
  • Thomas Tallis: Why Fum'th in Fight? *
Jessica Rivera, soprano
Kelley O'Connor, mezzo soprano
Thomas Studebaker, tenor
Nimon Ford, baritone
* Atlanta Symphony Chamber Chorus
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra/Robert Spano
Telarc CD-80676
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Also available on SACD 60676: Amazon - UK - Germany - Canada - France - Japan - ArkivMusic - CD Universe - JPC

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and its various choral groups accomplished a great deal during their most fruitful years with Telarc. Starting with choral legend Robert Shaw, and continuing to Robert Spano, each Atlanta Music Director has been gifted not only with one of the nation's top orchestras, but also some of its finest choruses. This disc is a highly inventive and happy marriage of the two, while paying tribute to one – no, make that two – of Brittan's finest composers.

The 54 second hymn that opens the disc may not seem like much until you realize it forms the inspiration for the ethereally beautiful Tallis Fantasia. It's unexpected, to be sure, but beautifully rendered by the Atlanta Chamber Chorus. It also leads naturally into a gorgeous reading of the Fantasia. Spano gives the music room to breathe, but never drags. In fact, some listeners may find it a bit on the quick side. I like the piece so much, in so many various viewpoints, that I can only say that Spano's is one of the most beautifully realized and recorded to date. Yes, we all have our favorite, but this is something special.

The Tallis Fantasia, along with the Fifth that follows, made up a successful disc under Andre Previn, also on Telarc. I own that as well, and that disc is certainly a winner on its own terms. Timings for the first two movements are actually very similar, but whereas Previn slams on the breaks for the third movement Romanza, Spano pushes the music a bit more. Spano's more flowing approach gives the movement a little more cogency, and allows the harmonies more of a chance to take flight. Don't get me wrong; Previn's slower approach is masterfully sustained and very well played. In the end though, quicker is better. The Atlanta Symphony is also a finer band by just a hair, with stellar low strings and amazing wind playing. While Previn's finale is listed as a touch faster than his labelmate Spano, I again give the barest of nods to Atlanta on account of a less clunky Passacaglia and slightly superior playing. Again, Previn is acknowledged as a leading champion of this music, and his work on Telarc is mostly excellent. Spano is just better, at least here.

The earlier disc certainly did not have a lovingly played and sung rendition of the composer's Serenade to Music, a glorious work in any form. There are three recognized versions: one for orchestra alone; one for 16 vocal soloists; and this version for soloists, chorus and orchestra. I like all three, although the first gets little play because it's just not the same without words. The diction of the Atlanta Chamber Chorus would probably make Robert Shaw very proud, to say nothing of their incredible singing. The soloists involved also sing quite movingly. The Atlanta Symphony simply soars alongside their choral counterparts, putting the finishing touches on what is possibly the finest tribute to the composer from these shores. Simply outstanding.

Copyright © 2013, Brian Wigman