Vaughan Williams Vocal Works
This is the first modern version of the Serenade to Music which attempts to provide an equivalent to the galaxy of soloists who took part in the very first performance at Sir Henry Wood's Jubilee in 1938, and then together made the first historic recording with Sir Henry, now reissued by Pearl. In character and distinction this easily outshines the only other contender with a named line-up of British soloists, Sir Adrian Boult's recording of 1968, still available on CD as part of EMI's seven-disc collection of Vaughan Williams's choral music. Matthew Best as conductor is not afraid to bring out the sensuous warmth of this setting of the famous speech from the garden scene in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, and the recording, clean on detail as the orchestral introduction makes plain, gives satisfying weight and richness to match. Best appreciates that this is Vaughan Williams as his most gutsy, not just evocative, and the result is profoundly moving. On detail I note the silvery sweetness of Amanda Roocroft in the Isobel Baillie solo, ''Of sweet harmony'', the consistency of the four tenors, even greater than those in the original recording, and the outstanding contributions of the two Connells (no relations)—not just Elizabeth Connell in the climactic Eva Turner solo, riding up to a glorious top A, but John Connell, the last and darkest of the basses in the Norman Allin solo.
Thomas Allen, leading that lowest group, is then the characterful, expressive soloist in two of the other works as well, the Five mystical songs and the Fantasia on Christmas carols. In due course this could be the ideal Christmas present, when Allen with his firm, warm tone and breadth of expression brings out the word meaning with new intensity, and Best backs him with strong, virile conducting. I prefer both these performances to the vintage EMI ones from Sir David Willcocks and Barry Rose respectively (both on (CD) CDM7 69872-2), though Rose's Guildford Cathedral version of the Christmas carol Fantasia is the more atmospheric for using trebles instead of sopranos.
As though those three works do not provide riches enough, Hyperion also offer an even longer work, a superb version of Flos campi, with Nobuko Imai as a rich-toned, characterful soloist. This is a performance which stays very much on a chamber scale. I marginally prefer the extra breadth and warmth of Vernon Handley's magical account with the RLPO and Christopher Balmer, which comes as fill-up on EMI Eminence's outstanding recording of the Vaughan Williams Fifth Symphony. Rather to my surprise Balmer is even richer than Imai, whose viola is spotlit in the recording balance, and can therefore hardly sound so sweet. But the Hyperion balance gives one the feeling of the viola as first person, the central character from which this evocation of the Song of Solomon develops and to whom it returns. The closeness and intimacy also give extra bite to the oriental march-music of the fourth section, while Best brings out the links between the closing section and the Serenade to Music, giving the record a satisfying consistency, with warm, immediate sound.'