This was a coupling just waiting to be made. Praise to Chandos for having a listening ear . Faultless too is the seasonal timing. The disc will also draw in a legion of RVW enthusiasts who will have pounced on a CD that offers premiere recordings of On Christmas Night and the Fantasia at least in this version. I was not aware that The First Nowell had been recorded by anyone else but this is its first appearance on CD. RVW fans need have no misgivings about the performances either. Christmas was one of the wellsprings from which Vaughan Williams drew his creativity. Quite apart from these three works he is responsible for arrangements of numerous carols in the democratising English Hymnal as well as the major tableaux cantata Hodie. If you look at these dates and add his hymnal work you can see that the inspirational grip of carols and Christmas not quite the same thing - on the agnostic composer was unremitting. The Fantasia on Christmas Carols was dedicated to Cecil Sharp and is based on the four carols: 'The Truth sent from above', 'Come all you worthy gentlemen', 'On Christmas Night' and 'There is a fountain filled with blood', plus hints of other carols. This recording uses the alternative scoring using an organ plus strings accompaniment. The 1960s EMI Barry Rose/John Barrow version also uses the string version but no organ. John Barrow etches the syllables with more precision than Roberts but on the other hand Roberts is rock-steady while Barrow leans on more vibrato. The rumbling analogue atmosphere of the Guildford version is absent and the choir is recorded with great subtlety and dynamics are observed with fine and comely precision. On Christmas Night was originally called A Christmas Carol. It derives from an adaptation of the Dickens story. This began as a ballet score commissioned by Adolf Bolm, who had been a principal dancer with Diaghilev. It was first performed in 1926. The ballet must have made a pleasing contrast with the usual Nutcracker. While the Fantasia is all serenity and mysticism, On Christmas Night is much more varied. In the Prelude and Marley s Ghost we are treated to some real grotesquerie and grand guignol out of Pilgrim s Progress and Riders to the Sea. Of course serenity is admitted at the gate and The Spirit of Christmas is touched with Dives and Lazarus and the Falstaff-Father Christmas amble of the bassoon surely is meant to recall The Keel Row as is Morris Jig. Sir Roger de Coverley (also beloved of Frank Bridge) can also be heard graciously stepping it out at Fezziwig s Party and under its own name at track 9. There is a magically entranced Midnight that mixes The First Nowell and The Truth sent from above. Out of this hush also emerged, some years later, Finzi s Christmas choral piece In Terra Pax. In The Black Nag, not for the first time, the Hardyesque country fiddler can be heard bowing it higher and higher amid the plumes of breathy condensation. The Procession of the Nativity mixes serene voices from what he later used in the Prelude to the music for the Forty-Ninth Parallel with sensitively sung carols and warmingly harmonised brass writing topped off with the Nativity bells. All ends in warmth and serenity. The First Nowell is a nativity play for soloists, chorus and small orchestra, was arranged and adapted from medieval pageants by Simona Pakenham. --Music web.
Essential listening:three of VW's major christmas-related works, in top flight performances. --BBC Music Magazine, Christmas '12
Fantasia on Christmas Carols - On Christmas Night - The First Nowell / Joseph Cullen, orgue - Sarah Fox, sop.- Roderick Williams, baryton - Joyful Company of Singers - City of London Sinfonia, dir. Richard Hickox