Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on Christmas Carols – which recording is best?

Jeremy Dibble Mon 1st December 2014

Jeremy Dibble surveys the available recordings of Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on Christmas Carols and chooses his favourite

Ralph Vaughan Williams always retained a passion for the festival of Christmas. It was nourished early on by his love of the carol and of childhood memories of singing them from Stainer and Bramley’s Christmas Carols New and Old (published between 1867 and 1878) at his home at Leith Hill Place, Surrey. As an adult, however, his profound acquaintance with carols blossomed when he began to collect them himself, on paper or with phonograph, in various counties of England – Essex, Surrey, Sussex, Somerset, Worcester and Hereford among others – during the first decade of the 20th century, in the wake of the founding of the English Folk Song Society in 1898. The outcome of these field activities was the publication of tunes in such places as the English Hymnal (1906) and, later, the Oxford Book of Carols (1928), but his lifelong fervour for Christmas and all its cultural manifestations was powerfully expressed in four works, the Fantasia on Christmas Carols (1912), the ballet On Christmas Night (1926) based on Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the cantata Hodie (1953‑54) and the nativity play The First Nowell (1958).

The year 1912 witnessed the completion of three fine English choral works inspired by the feast of Christmas. Least known is Benjamin Dale’s setting of Christina Rossetti’s Before the Paling of the Stars, a work Henry Wood called ‘a choral gem’. The 64-year-old Hubert Parry composed his Baroque-inspired masterpiece, Ode on the Nativity, to words by William Dunbar, for the Hereford Three Choirs Festival, and, for the same occasion, Vaughan Williams, by then aged 40, produced his Fantasia on Christmas Carols which was dedicated to his colleague, Cecil Sharp. Already a well-seasoned Three Choirs composer with premieres of his Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis at Gloucester (1910) and the Five Mystical Songs at Worcester (1911), his Hereford commission allowed him the chance to offer the public the fruits of his own folksong collecting, the beauties of the old melodies and their potential for something new and national.

The Fantasia was first performed on the evening of September 12, 1912, conducted by the composer with the baritone Campbell McInnes (who had, the previous year, given the first performance of Butterworth’s folk-inspired song-cycle A Shropshire Lad). As Parry noted in his diary: ‘Vaughan Williams carol piece very jolly.’

The notion of creating a musical structure out of folk tunes was not new to Vaughan Williams. His two Norfolk Rhapsodies of 1905‑06 experimented with the juxtaposition of various contrasting melodies, and Holst, whose contemporaneous Somerset Rhapsody did much the same thing, had produced his fantasy, Christmas Day, in 1910 for chorus and orchestra which was based on the interaction of four carol melodies. Holst’s work was essentially constructed on four readily available published carols (‘Good Christian men rejoice’, ‘God rest ye merry gentlemen’, ‘The First Nowell’ and an old Breton melody set to the words ‘Come, ye lofty, come, ye lowly’), whereas Vaughan Williams saw the opportunity, as in his Norfolk Rhapsodies, to feature a number of less familiar, unpublished English carols that had been collected (by himself or Cecil Sharp) as well as a number of old traditional favourites. Furthermore, in keeping with his democratic convictions, he made the work widely available in a variety of scorings: for full orchestra; for strings and organ; for organ (or piano) and solo cello. Recordings in the current catalogue reflect all three of these versions.

The Fantasia

The first part of Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia is based on two variants of the same carol melody collected in Herefordshire – ‘There is a fountain of Christ’s blood’ recorded on phonograph with a 70-year-old labourer, Mr W Hancocks at Monnington in October 1908, and ‘The truth sent from above’ sung by Mr W Jenkins at King’s Pyon in July 1909. Both were published in the Journal of the Folk-Song Society in June 1910. Much of the haunting opening cello solo derives its thematic material from these two carols, in particular the poignant motif E‑D sharp‑B‑D lifted from ‘There is a fountain’. Recounting the story of Adam’s fall and the coming of Christ the Redeemer, the tone is one of solemnity (the Norfolk Rhapsody No 1 begins in much the same manner with ‘The dark-eyed sailor’) as the solo baritone intones ‘The truth sent from above’ accompanied by a wordless chorus, evocative perhaps of a wintry rural English landscape. After the final verse for chorus and soloist, the string orchestra, until then a punctuative agency between verses, breaks into a full, rich execution of ‘There is a fountain’ which, through its juxtaposition with ‘The truth sent from above’, confirms its strong relationship.

As a foil to the Dorian gravity of the first section, Vaughan Williams introduces the more jovial ‘Somerset Carol’ (‘Come all you worthy gentlemen’), very much a variant on ‘God rest you merry gentlemen’, collected by Cecil Sharp in Bridgwater and published in the fifth series of his Folk Songs from Somerset in 1909. Its climax is marked by the brief but telling citation of ‘The First Nowell’ before leading into a third section based on another of Vaughan Williams’s collected carols, the ‘Sussex Carol’ (‘On Christmas Night, all Christians sing’), sung by Mrs Verrall of Monk’s Gate, Horsham, on May 24, 1904, published in the Journal of the Folk-Song Society (1905) and later with accompaniment in Eight Traditional English Carols in 1919. This subsequently combines with the ‘Somerset Carol’ in a quodlibet of other carol quotations including the ‘Wassail Song’, a Yorkshire tune familiarised by Stainer, and ‘A Virgin most pure’ from Davies Gilbert’s Ancient Christmas Carols published in 1822. Yet, at the very end, Vaughan Williams removes us from the high spirits of merry-making in a poignant blessing for unaccompanied chorus, and we are carried back, as Michael Kennedy has suggested, ‘across the snow-covered fields and away into the night’. It is a moment of exquisite beauty.

The Recordings

The earliest recording of the Fantasia is a curiosity. Leopold Stokowski was a fellow student of Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music in the mid-1890s (even though the former, at the tender age of 14, was Vaughan Williams’s junior by 10 years). Stokowski always remained a standard-bearer for Vaughan Williams in the US, and in the Christmas concert for the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1943 he programmed an orchestral version of the Fantasia. Full of rather unsubtle cuts, the piece is really but a shadow of the choral original. The performance was probably given at Stokowski’s instigation and the arrangement made most likely without Vaughan Williams’s or his publisher’s approval; score and parts have disappeared and there is no record of it in the formal list of Stokowski’s arrangements, so its unique recording remains something of a mystery. As a representation of the piece, however, I would find it hard to live with this bowdlerised version for very long.

Five of the available recordings feature the Fantasia in its full orchestral scoring. Of these the two earliest are Matthew Best with Thomas Allen, the Corydon Singers and the English Chamber Orchestra, and Richard Hickox with Stephen Roberts, the LSO and LSO Chorus, both made in 1990. The former provides an attractive coupling with the Serenade to Music, Five Mystical Songs and Flos Campi, while the latter, a two-CD bargain, offers A Sea Symphony and Hodie. Best’s interpretation of the opening of the Fantasia convincingly establishes a sense of mystery and darkness, as does the fine narrative tone from Allen which complements the sombre atmosphere. Yet the entry of the strings for ‘There is a fountain’ seems slightly reserved and wanting of a fuller tone. While the Corydon Singers accompany the opening well with excellent tuning and sensitivity, their albeit precise singing of the livelier ‘Somerset Carol’ is a little too slow and lacking in energy, a factor which tends to make the fuller sound of the orchestra (now with the addition of wind, brass and organ) appear stodgy, even though Allen’s sprightly ‘On Christmas Night’ is infectious and authoritative. Hickox’s interpretation, a good minute shorter than Best’s, places more emphasis at the beginning on the sense of mystery; the winter snowscape and the chorus’s verisimilitude of chilling wind is at times palpable. Roberts’s singing is sustained and compellingly varied in tone and dynamics, which is echoed sympathetically by the LSO Chorus, yet the tempo of ‘There is a fountain’ is a little too brisk to eke out enough luxuriant tone from the strings and falls short, in my view, from expressing that inner melancholy which this part of the score seeks to explore. The fuller sound of the LSO and organ in the faster sections has much more direct impact in the climaxes of Vaughan Williams’s score, yet some of the orchestral detail is occasionally lost, notably the tubular bell carillon in the quodlibet. Nevertheless, Hickox makes up for this with a wonderfully hushed, distant ending for the chorus.

Not long after these two recordings, two others followed in quick succession. On his 1993 recording, John Rutter conducts the City of London Sinfonia with Stephen Varcoe and the Cambridge Singers as part of a festive CD which features numerous carols, many of them in Rutter’s inimitable arrangements. This is an affecting reading which opens with a beautifully shaped cello solo, and although the overall length of the performance is the same as that of Hickox, Rutter keeps the initial tempo well under control. Varcoe sings from the heart and his diction is impeccable. The sound of wordless choir and strings is rich (even if the choir is perhaps a little too forward for my liking in one or two places). The tempo is brisker and Rutter moves with more stately conviction through the string orchestra’s solo section. The rendition of the ‘Somerset Carol’ is noticeably more lively than in either Best or Hickox, helped by a greater injection of rhythmic incisiveness, and this subsequently gives ‘On Christmas Night’ and the ‘wassail’ spirit a greater sense of contrast in their more relaxed presentation. The sound of the orchestra, perhaps lacking the fullness of the LSO, nevertheless benefits from a greater clarity in passages for the woodwind and brass as well as the percussion.

The following year, David Hill recorded the Fantasia with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, the choir of Winchester Cathedral and the Waynflete Singers as part of a collection entitled ‘Christmas Fantasy’ which features an interesting series of English Christmas miniatures by Delius, Warlock, Holst, Howells and Finzi. Recorded in Winchester Cathedral, the sound has a more remote quality, as if the band and choir are set back some way from the microphone. Donald Sweeney’s opening solo, while sensitively controlled and lyrical in demeanour, rarely strays from this mode of delivery and is strangely lacking in the narrative element which the text surely demands. The tempo of the ‘Somerset Carol’ is also bafflingly pedestrian in its slower pace, which has a detrimental effect on the major orchestral tutti that follows, in that the lack of rhythmic élan gives rise to a heavy, ponderous texture. And when Sweeney enters for ‘On Christmas Night’, there is also not enough discernible differentiation in mood, which detracts from the dance character of this lovely carol. On the positive side, there is some effective singing from the Winchester choristers, who have an appealing edge to their voices, and the sound of the BSO strings is warm and evocative. However, once again the bell carillon is practically lost on this recording during the over-enthusiastic quodlibet at the end.

The only other available recording of the Fantasia in its full orchestral version was issued in 2007, featuring the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Hilary Davan Wetton with Stephen Gadd and the Guildford Choral Society; like Hickox’s recording it is coupled with Hodie. This recording begins with a curious mismatch of tempi. The cello solo begins with quite a lively understanding of Vaughan Williams’s Andante marking, while an authoritative Stephen Gadd sets off at a slower tempo with his own entry. He is generally well supported by the Guildford Choral Society in the wordless passages of the first part but in the later stages of the recording the soprano line needs more prominence and brightness (occasionally a little flatness also creeps in). And although Davan Wetton avoids the unwieldy tempo of Hill’s ‘Somerset Carol’, there is still a problem of balance between orchestra and chorus at the first climax. I also find myself wanting more clarity in some of the imitative parts of Vaughan Williams’s choral writing (especially between soprano and tenor) which are at times barely audible at the pinnacle of the final choral paragraph.

The alternative version

Three recordings of the Fantasia are still available in Vaughan Williams’s alternative orchestral scoring for strings and organ, a version, in my opinion, more effective in terms of its balance, vivacity and sonority. For the ‘archive’ recording ‘On Christmas Night’, made by David Willcocks, Hervey Alan, the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, and the strings of the LSO in 1962, such a scoring is ideal for the smaller choir. Although the remastered mono recording retains a background ‘hiss’, there is still much that is admirable about this performance, made in the generous space of King’s College Chapel. Willcocks’s opening tempo is spot on, and the dark hues of the choral accompaniment (always in excellent tune) have a persuasive significance. Some may find the voice of Hervey Alan, best known for his roles in Italian opera, a shade flowery, but it is a powerful instrument, always to the fore and with a strong narrative presence. True, there are at times some blemishes of balance but there is an impression of flamboyance in the larger chemistry of the choir’s exquisite intonation and ensemble, the fervour of Alan’s delivery, the spacious acoustic and the warmth of the LSO strings.

The recording of Barry Rose, John Barrow and the Guildford Cathedral Choir, with a nameless string orchestra, was first released in 1966 (though it has featured since on recordings with Hely-Hutchinson’s much underrated Carol Symphony and here again with a 1965 recording of Hodie with Willcocks, the LSO and the Bach Choir). Recorded in the equally munificent auditorium of Guildford Cathedral, the sound of the ensemble has a clearer quality, especially the luminous sound of the Guildford trebles, who are on terrific form. John Barrow, more convincing in the searching mood of the opening, seems more diffident in the pastoral rhythms of ‘On Christmas Night’ and perhaps lacks a certain variety in vocal character, but he evinces fine tone and intonation throughout.

Chandos’s 2005 recording with Richard Hickox, Roderick Williams, the City of London Sinfonia and the Joyful Company of Singers makes a claim of being the ‘premiere recording of the arrangement for strings and organ’ – clearly untrue – but it is the only recording which couples the ballet On Christmas Night and The First Nowell. For sound this is unequalled. Williams’s gentle grades of tone draw us into the Christmas story, coloured by the clean and atmospheric sound of the JCS. I still feel that Hickox has a tendency to hasten through ‘There is a fountain’ a little too much but the first section as a whole has subtle, imaginative nuances and a plangency that transports us into snow-covered fields, to darkness and candlelight and the winter’s biting cold. Hickox also captures the gaiety of the ‘Somerset Carol’, and ‘On Christmas Night’ has a winning, almost pastoral gentleness which Williams captures with his beautifully rounded tone. This, more than any of the other recordings, seems to evoke those happy images of homely, festal firesides, Christmas trees, glasses of ale, blythe bells (which are splendidly done here) and, to quote Scrooge’s nephew, the one time in the year when we ‘open our shut-up hearts’.

One final recording, made in 2009, is available of the version Vaughan Williams arranged for organ, cello, soloist and choir, with Stephen Shellard and the Worcester Cathedral Chamber Choir. Unfortunately I have to admit to missing the orchestral dimension which lends so much texture and pathos to the score (especially the darker first section where the strings are so prominent); and though the solo cello lends a degree of mystery to the ensemble, the organ ultimately can only be second best. I also find Ben Cooper’s solo role rather wooden, and the chorus’s intonation is at times wayward, particularly at the end where they are most exposed.

All of these considered, top of my list comes the recording with Hickox, Williams, the CLS and the JCS for the precision and quality of sound, the warmth of Williams’s sensuous tone, the pathos of the string-playing and the contrasts of the three main sections. Moreover, this interpretation is served best by the composer’s more intimate scoring for strings and organ which, for me at least, provides such a sympathetic insight into Vaughan Williams’s imaginative and inventive score.

TOP CHOICE

Hickox Chandos CHAN10385

This recording is most evocative of an English Christmas. Roderick Williams’s beautifully rounded tone has a glow, while the CLS strings and the Joyful Company of Singers provide a sensitive accompaniment. 

MOST FESTAL PROGRAMME

Rutter Collegium CSCD512

John Rutter brings conviction to this robust reading and Stephen Varcoe adds much to the emotional dimension. The programme of carols is an attractive plus. 

BEST ARCHIVE RECORDING

Willcocks Decca 444 848-2DF2

The partnership of Willcocks, Hervey Alan, King’s College Choir and the LSO strings exudes a warmth in the evocative atmosphere of King’s College Chapel.

BEST COUPLING

Best Hyperion CDA66420

The evocation of mystery and Thomas Allen’s authoritative role are strong points, and the addition of the Serenade to Music, Five Mystical Songs and Flos Campi make it the most attractive of couplings.

Selected Discography

Date / Artists Record company (review date)

1943 NBC SO / Stokowski Guild B GHCD2361 (10/10)

1962 Alan; Ch of King’s Coll, Cambridge; LSO / Willcocks Decca 444 848-2DF2 (12/62R, 11/78R)

1966 Barrow; Guildford Cath Ch; orch / Rose EMI 567427-2 (12/66R, 6/77R)

1990 Allen; Corydon Sgrs; ECO / Best Hyperion CDA66420 (9/90); CDS44321/4

1990 Roberts; London Sym Chor; LSO / Hickox EMI 968934-2

1993 Varcoe; Cambridge Sgrs; CLS / Rutter Collegium CSCD512

1994 Sweeney; Winchester Cath Ch, Waynflete Sgrs; Bournemouth SO / Hill Eloquence 480 6554

2005 Williams; Joyful Company of Sgrs; CLS / Hickox Chandos CHAN10385 (12/06)

2007 Gadd; Guildford Chor Soc; RPO / Wetton Naxos 8 570439 (12/07)

2009 Cooper; Worcester Cath Ch; Orch / Shellard Regent REGCD330 (12/10)

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