Flowers of the Field

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Butterworth; Finzi; Gurney; Vaughan Williams
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: Butterworth: A Shropshire Lad; Finzi: Requiem da Camera; Gurney: The Trumpet; Vaughan Williams: An Oxford Elegy
PERFORMER: Jeremy Irons (speaker), Roderick Williams (baritone); City of London Choir; London Mozart Players/Hilary Davan Wetton
CATALOGUE NO: 8.573426

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Even if its premise – composers touched by World War I – is a bit thin, this is an unusual and moving programme. Only the Butterworth is well known, written well before his fateful war service; Hilary Davan Wetton’s reading seems darker and less serene than usual. Finzi, too young to serve, wrote the Requiem da Camera (1924) in memory of his teacher, Ernest Farrar. These Masefield and Hardy settings, less mature than Dies Natalis, remained unperformed in his lifetime, but Davan Wetton and excellent soloist Roderick Williams find real depth of feeling in them. Likewise Gurney’s The Trumpet, to Edward Thomas’s wartime poem, which also remained unorchestrated and unperformed until 2007.

An Oxford Elegy, though, is the major work here. Its unusual form, melodrama echoed by the chorus in words and melisma, makes performances rare, although the score is beautiful and carefully structured to accommodate the spoken verses, from Matthew Arnold’s The Scholar Gypsy and Thyrsis. There’s little to choose between this and earlier recordings by Sir David Willcocks and Stephen Darlington, their college choruses especially; but their respective speakers, the mellifluous John Westbrook and Jack May (of The Archers), deliver the verses in rather plummy oratorical manner, as live performance would demand. Here, though, Jeremy Irons is recorded much more naturally and intimately, like a voiceover, and this, for me at least, greatly enhances the work.

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Michael Scott Rohan