Vaughan Williams Vocal Works
Here are three performances which can genuinely be described as historic. Two are transfers from what were originally commercial 78s, the third was a BBC broadcast. The last is the most important, because there are few enough recordings of Vaughan Williams conducting his own music and now to have one of him conducting a major choral work, his 1936 cantata Dona nobis pacem, is exciting. This was the first London performance on November 13th, 1936, a studio broadcast six weeks after the first performance in Huddersfield and with the original soloists. (The work was not publicly performed in London until 1938.) Incidentally, AS is not quite accurate in suggesting in his note accompanying the recording that its existence is a ''recent discovery''. It has long been listed in the BBC archive, and I seem to remember that it was re-broadcast not long after the composer's death.
In spite of its age, the sound is more than acceptable. Obviously the big climaxes are constricted, but a surprising amount of orchestral detail is audible and the clarity of the BBC Chorus's diction is beyond praise. As, of course, is that of the soloists. The soprano Renee Flynn (what became of her?) has both the purity and warmth her part requires, and Roy Henderson gives an object-lesson in projecting the text—he sings the John Bright passage about the Angel of Death piano and most dramatically. I know, too, from a conversation I had with Vaughan Williams, how particular he was about the tempos in this work and how dissatisfied he was with Sargent's in a performance we had just heard. So, modern conductors please note, here are the tempos the composer wanted. He conducted a most moving performance.
Sir Henry Wood's recording of the Serenade to Music with the 16 original soloists has been available on EP (nla), but this is its first CD appearance. It should never be unavailable, for no matter how good any modern performance may be, the first 'cast', as one may call them, were unsurpassable. (Three are still alive—Dame Eva Turner, Mary Jarred and Roy Henderson). In his skilful transfer, Denis Hall has wisely not tried to eliminate surface noise. As a result, the vocal quality of for example, Isobel Baillie's soaring ''sweet harmony'' sounds pristine. The 1937 Coronation Te Deum, though less remarkable as a composition, makes a good 'overture' to this disc.
Pearl's editorial work rather lets down this treasurable issue. The soprano Stiles Allen spelt her name thus, not Styles; the BBC Chorus have no part in the Serenade and there is a misprint in the catalogue number of the original Columbia 78s; and the correct title of the Te Deum is Festival Te Deum to differentiate it from Vaughan Williams's earlier setting. Also, no conductor is given for this last. In my Vaughan Williams catalogue I attribute it wrongly to Sir Adrian Boult. The choral works in the service were, I have since discovered all conducted by Sir Ernest Bullock.'