Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis – a quick guide to the best recordings

Gramophone Thu 16th February 2017

A quick overview of the greatest recordings of Vaughan Williams's Tallis Fantasia

Tallis Fantasia. A Pastoral Symphony, etc

Hallé Orchestra

Mark Elder

Hallé

This is, to my mind, the finest volume yet in Sir Mark Elder’s unfolding Vaughan Williams cycle with the Hallé. Abetted by uncommonly articulate orchestral playing, the performance of the Pastoral Symphony evinces a glowing dedication, remarkable luminosity of texture, songful rapture and emotional clout that mark it out as a front-runner alongside Boult (Decca), Previn (RCA), Handley (CfP) and Haitink (EMI).

In the opening Molto moderato Elder’s enviably lucid conception distils both slumbering organic power and piercing heartache to the manner born, while the E flat trumpet and natural horn’s elegiac solos during the second movement really do bring a lump to the throat. The scherzo will make you sit up, such is the muscular vigour and fiery snap on show; like Handley before him, Elder is memorably appreciative of RVW’s brillante marking for the trumpets and trombones in the recurring trio section, though no partnership has equalled Previn and his light-as-thistledown LSO in the magical Presto coda. The finale is superbly handled: that astounding unison cry at one bar before fig J (7'03") projects with searing intensity, and those giddily eloquent measures from three before fig O (8'03") leading up to the towering climax are truly sostenuto as requested. My sole grumble is that Sarah Fox (who sings her wordless vocalise beautifully) might perhaps have been afforded a less close balance.

The couplings yield comparable rewards. I’m especially taken with Elder’s thrillingly ardent and bracingly characterful way with Five Variants of ‘Dives and Lazarus’; both here and in the Tallis Fantasia (which also enjoys subtly observant, pliable and profoundly moving treatment) the Hallé strings cover themselves in glory. An exhilaratingly crisp yet wonderfully affectionate Wasps Overture rounds off proceedings with aplomb. Two different venues were employed but the sound consistently displays commendable transparency, warmth, depth and antiphonal spread. A marvellous disc.

 

Tallis Fantasia. The Lark Ascending

BBC Symphony Orchestra / Andrew Davis

Warner Apex

Sir Andrew Davis’s Vaughan Williams symphony cycle for Teldec may not have always found favour in these pages, the exception being this first instalment from 1990 containing the Sixth, Tallis Fantasia and The Lark Ascending. If not quite as enviably concentrated as either Handley or Haitink (to name the two most powerful contenders of recent years), Davis similarly surveys the Symphony in defiantly unsensational fashion, cannily refusing to overplay his hand in the final full flowering of the first movement’s second subject (like Handley, he already has his gaze firmly set on the slow movement’s shattering fff apex) and drawing playing of admirable hush and tension in the bleached finale. As Sixths go, this deserves a place on any short list.

No grumbles, either, about the two-fill-ups; the Tallis Fantasia brings some ravishing string sonorities (superb engineering throughout, by the way), and Tasmin Little’s is an intoxicating, silvery presence in The Lark Ascending. Altogether remarkable value at its new, enticingly low price.

 

Tallis Fantasia

London Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Adrian Boult

Warner Classics

Nobody captures the essence of this music like the 86-year-old Sir Adrian Boult. With a flick of the wrist he immediately establishes the perfect atmosphere – hushed but intensely alive at every turn. He builds unerringly to an impassioned climax and sets a satisfying seal on a glowing performance. This is the version to live with.

 

Tallis Fantasia

New Queen's Hall Orchestra / Barry Wordsworth

Decca

The sound of the LSO strings in 1910 must remain largely a matter of conjecture but this beautifully textured account on gut-strung instruments cuts to the heart of the score and Wordsworth’s impeccable Boultian pedigree is evident throughout.

 

Tallis Fantasia

Boyd Neel Orchestra / Boyd Neel

Dutton

Boyd Neel’s famous strings play immaculately and the 1936 Decca recording is beautifully balanced. It has been marvellously transferred from 78s by Michael Dutton and given the composer’s presence and supervision this is about as authentic as it gets.

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