Five great English music tracks you may not know
Leading English soprano Sarah Fox chooses five favourite neglected English gems from her recording career
As the leading English soprano Sarah Fox stars in a new recording of Hubert Parry’s little-known Scenes from Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, she chooses five favourite neglected English gems from her recording career
'It has been one of the joys of my life to explore underrated or forgotten English music. There’s so much, even from our best-known composers.
'Take Purcell, for instance - of course there’s a lot that lots of people know, like Purcell’s aria 'Fairest Isle' from his opera King Arthur. But then there are so many other incredible pieces, with unbelievable beauty and complexity, like his song 'The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation'. I was lucky enough to learn some of these at university - and that made me realise how much we’re missing!
'Things go in and out of favour, often for no apparent reason. There’s a revival of the music of Hubert Parry happening now, which is so belated and so justified. A big discovery for me was his Magnificat, which I sang at the Endellion Festival - it’s an absolute mystery why it isn’t done all the time.
'I’ve recorded quite a lot of Parry’s music by now, including this new recording of Scenes From Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, conducted by William Vann, with the London Mozart Players and the Crouch End Festival Chorus - what an amazing ensemble they are! - for Chandos.
'The sessions were unforgettable, because as it turned out we were recording it in London on the day the Queen died, and we all heard that night once the news was announced. It made it even more special to be doing that work then, because it’s such a British piece, and knowing how King Charles is a great fan of Parry somehow made it all even more atmospheric. And I can’t wait to see what Will finds for us to record next!
'From all the English music discoveries I’ve recorded, here are five favourite tracks, and I hope others can enjoy exploring them as much as I have.'
Five great English music tracks you've probably never heard
1) Parry, 'Hear ye the word of your God' from Judith
This was my first collaboration with Will Vann for a Parry oratorio. This track is really beautiful, lyrical music - all three parts have gorgeous individual lines that, however, interweave fantastically well. It starts with the tenor, then somehow mellows and we all join in. It isn’t very long, but it’s one of my favourite moments in the whole piece, and one that is absolutely typical of Parry’s gift for luscious harmony.
2) Parry, 'The Child and the Twilight'
From Parry, Twelve Sets Of English Lyrics, vol. 3 (Somm Recordings)
A few years ago I was asked to take part in a recording of Parry’s songs with piano, and again, there were so many astonishing discoveries in this music that you never hear. 'The Child and the Twilight', a world away from Judith, is almost like a fairy tale, you can really tell a story with it, and the music is so evocative - you can hear the character skipping through the woods.
As a singer there’s a challenge there, because if you go over the top with that kind of song it can really sound twee, but because it’s very childlike (it’s told from a child’s point of view) you have to really engage with it and commit.
Obviously I’m not a child singing, but my approach was to embrace it as though I’m telling a story to a child, with vivid brushstrokes, trying to capture that wide-eyed feeling of how a child notices things. It’s a fabulous song!
3) Vaughan Williams, 'The Cherry Tree Carol Part Two' from The First Nowell
From Vaughan Williams Christmas Music (Chandos)
I don’t understand why the song cycle The First Nowell doesn’t get done much more! There haven’t been that many recordings made of it.
This was around the time I first started working with Richard Hickox, who came to have such a big influence on me until he passed away terribly early. This was for a recording of Christmas-themed music by Vaughan Williams for Chandos, also with the baritone Roderick Williams.
We grew up singing Christmas songs of course, but this is really a rich work. I also sang my first Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony with Richard, and you could always see how much he loved British music, what joy he got from it, and so it was a joy for you as the singer. And he trusted your instincts, and of course he trusted the composer as well - so it was always a wonderful collaboration. From the whole cycle, I’ve chosen 'The Cherry Tree Carol Part Two', a gorgeous melody.
4) Britten, 'Dear sir, mention not my education'
From The Beggar’s Opera (Chandos)
This is a famous work, but one that you don’t hear that often these days. This began as another collaboration with Richard Hickox, and we performed it together at Covent Garden, but Richard died shortly afterwards and Christopher Curnyn took over the recording.
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It was all very emotionally intense because of those circumstances, but what a piece! Some people find Britten’s music difficult, but he was a genius at setting text to music, and he was one of the most atmospheric composers.
This aria was a version of a Purcell song. Britten would do these incredibly clever things, but never just for the sake of being clever. In an amazing way, through his version of this song, which sounds completely different from the original, he knits together different periods of English history, including his own.
5) Vaughan Williams, 'Agnus Dei'
From Dona Nobis Pacem (Hyperion Records)
Back to Vaughan Williams! It took an American orchestra, choir and conductor for me to record his Dona Nobis Pacem, thanks to Andrew Litton’s absolute love for the piece. Andrew was so passionate about it all being right, and we had three concerts of it, so we all really had the chance to live it together.
It’s an incredible piece, really powerful, especially in performance. Some works do massively step up somehow from rehearsal to the performance; they need the audience to really take off, and this is one of those.
It’s difficult to sing - Vaughan Williams often wrote music that sits right in the cracks of the voice! Especially the end of the 'Agnus Dei', where I’m unaccompanied on a low E, the trickiest part of the voice possible! But what an experience. I loved singing this great piece.
The odd thing is that it doesn’t even get done much in the UK. I sang it at the Barbican with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Sakari Oramo once, and it was again a great experience. As I said, sometimes there’s just no real reason why things aren’t heard more!
Parry’s Scenes From Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, featuring Sarah Fox and conducted by William Vann, is released on 8 September 2023 on Chandos Records