Vaughan Williams: Hodie, Fantasia on Christmas Carols

COMPOSERS: Vaughan Williams
LABELS: Naxos
ALBUM TITLE: Hodie
WORKS: Hodie, Fantasia on Christmas Carols

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PERFORMER: Janice Watson (soprano), Peter Hoare (tenor), Stephen Gadd (baritone); Guildford Choral Society; St Catherine’s School Middle Chamber Choir; Royal PO/Hilary Davan Wetton

CATALOGUE NO: 8.570439
The Fantasia on Christmas Carols is well-loved and frequently recorded, but Hodie (‘This Day’) is much less well represented. Composed in 1953-54 towards the end of his life, it’s a larger-scale and longer work, and, like many products of Vaughan Williams’s old age, reflects his warm, rumbustious personality and familiar mannerisms, but without quite the original flashes that illuminate earlier works. It’s enormous Christmassy fun, nevertheless, and deserves more attention.

It resembles the traditional carol service, interspersing carols and seasonal lessons; but here the lessons are sung by boys’ choir, and the carols a wider range of Christmas poetry ranging from Milton, Herbert and Thomas Hardy to Ursula Vaughan Williams, framed by a jubilant Prologue and Epilogue. This eclectic selection actually flows extremely well, with soaring choral writing and lyrical solos.

Recordings are also rarer, though, because the first is such a hard act to follow, conducted with airy grandeur by Sir David Willcocks, with the Bach Choir, Westminster Abbey choristers, Philip Ledger on organ and, singing those solos, Janet Baker, Richard Lewis and John Shirley-Quirk, no less. Hilary Davan-Wetton’s trio, though excellent, doesn’t quite match them, and his spirited Guildford forces fall somewhat short of the Bach’s clean-cut ensemble. This isn’t entirely a disadvantage; this performance sounds less ‘cathedrally’ and more intimate, especially as – despite the sleeve – the lessons are well sung by girl’s choir, creating a warmer sound. Davan-Wetton’s conducting is vibrant but too often inclined to be heavy-handed. These are still engaging performances, though, in spacious modern sound and at a pretty good price – definitely worth considering.

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Michael Scott Rohan