Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 5; Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
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In 2003, Robert Spano and the ASO won three GRAMMY awards for Vaughan Williams' "A Sea Symphony" (Best Classical Album, Best Choral performance and Best Classical Engineered Album). The album was hailed by The Philadelphia Inquirer as "...one of the most distinctive recordings ..." and the Symphony Magazine called the ASO Chorus' command of Vaughan William's fascinating and varied choral effects "...simply spectacular."
The critical acclaim is likely to continue for this new recording of Vaughan Williams' music. Anchoring this brilliant disc is the composer's peaceful Symphony No. 5 which was first heard in 1943 in the midst of World War II. A departure from his angry and strident Fourth Symphony, Symphony No. 5 was welcomed as an island of serenity in a time of great uncertainty.
Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis is considered by many to be the composer's first indisputable masterpiece and has been featured in several films, including Remando al viento in 1988 with Hugh Grant and Elizabeth Hurley and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World in 2003 with Russell Crowe.
Opening the disc is the Elizabethan church composer Thomas Tallis' four-part a cappella hymn "Why fum'th in fight," a paraphrase of Psalm 2 "Why do the nations rage?" which is one of nine Psalm settings by Tallis. This tune is the basis for Vaughan Williams' Fantasia.
The composer's Serenade to Music has been called one of the most sublime musical creations of the 20th century. Set to the final scene of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, it was originally created for 16 soloists, but the composer designed the work so that it could also be performed by four soloists and chorus. This work was composed for and dedicated to Sir Henry Wood - who instituted London's Promenade Concerts - in celebration of his 50th anniversary as a conductor.
The major item here, Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 5, is flanked by one of his most popular works, the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, and another regarded as a connoisseurs delight, the Serenade to Music. Spano prefaces the Fantasia with Tallis 16th-century hymn, which Vaughan Williams expanded into an extensive work for two string orchestras and string quartet. Its a deep toned homage to Renaissance music whose noble expressiveness and archaic harmonies are irresistible, especially when played with the rich string tone of the Atlantans. In the Serenade, written for "sixteen soloists," who also sing as an impeccable choral ensemble, and this well-paced performance is arguably the finest on disc. The Fifth Symphony was written amid the carnage of World War II, but it offered solace instead of anger, reminiscent of the composers earlier pastoral works in its serene, autumnal mood. Here too, the orchestra plays with great tonal beauty as Spano directs a performance whose sensitive awareness of the composers spiritual subtext does not preclude flowing tempos and pointed phrasing. A disc to treasure! --Dan DavisSee all Editorial Reviews
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Briefly, the disc starts off with the choir intoning the old Tallis hymn setting upon whose melody the RVW Tallis Fantasia is built.
Then we get the full fantasia proper, scored for a kaleidoscope of strings. Spano's interpretive approach is colorful, luscious, forward-moving, and above all, folk-lorico. He lets the strings drench, paint, reflect myriad lights bright and soft, and overflow the harmonic banks, just as much as this great streaming flood of musical fantasy passes through more typical RVW moments of modal mystery and meditation. Whew. Very high calorie, then.
Then the disc leads us right into the wartime depths of RVW's Fifth Symphony. Premiered in a bomb shelter in London during the blitz of World War II, this symphony startled its first listening audience with sounds of profound calm and lyricism. Yes, something in the constantly shifting modal harmonies throughout all four movements manages to suggest that there are dark things, indeed, that go bump in the British night. To protect children from the bombing, they had been moved into the countryside, and this massive displacement offered John Bowlby a naturalistic opportunity to study the development of childhood attachment, affected by the vicissitudes of separation and change and loss. To hear the unease in this symphony's music, you would infer that pretty much everybody felt what the children must have been feeling, somehow. And, so turned to the wider and deeper realms that make us more human than bombs or separations or displacements per se. Much of the work's materials derive from or relate to the music RVW had written into his only stage work, an unusual hybrid of opera-pageant, based on John Bunyan's famous devotional book, Pilgrim's Progress.
Like Hindemith's Mathis der Maler Symphonie, RVW's fifth reworks the musical materials, bringing out their harmonic form and expanding at greater length on their capacities for narrative. Many listeners cannot avoid hearing a persistent spiritual sense of inner mystical vitalities in this symphony, despite the documented biographical fact that RVW was, as his second wife put it, a cheerful agnostic.
Again, Spano and band play the fifth symphony with great grip and gusto, folk-lorico. This approach just misses the four-square sense of Elizabethan gravitas which, say, Sir Adrian Boult brings to RVW - but there is something else, something typically called North American in what remains. Wide open, feelingful, colorful - younger and pioneering on open prairie high plains, with Nature spectacles like the Rocky Mountains or the Grand Canyon for cathedral close.
Then this disc wraps up with the wonderful RVW setting of Shakespeare, Serenade to Music. Originally, it was written to be a once-in-a-lifetime concert piece for sixteen solo singers - all of whom at its premier performance had been associated in some way or other with RVW's musical career. Spano leads the choral version, enhanced by four mixed soloists, SATB. RVW himself authorized this alternative, though when sixteen gifted soloists are available, the original vision holds its singular place, aloft.
All concerned match their music to their exalted text. One just barely misses the gaggle of sixteen original soloists, and the point is made beautifully, musical. Such harmonies are truly in immortal souls.
Highly recommended. Another show of just how good super audio and five (or five point one) channels can be for music, and not just explosions and car crashes in the action movie genre. I'm not tossing out my older CD's of Sir Adrian Boult or Sir John Barbirolli, or even Leonard Slatkin with the Philharmonia, in this symphony. But I'm adding this disc to the fav shelf, no doubts.
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