Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on Greensleeves (CD review)

Also, Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis; Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1; In the Fen Country; Concerto Grosso. James Judd, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.555867.

I can’t think of a nicer way to spend five or ten bucks. This little Naxos disc is as lovely a way to spend an evening listening to music as I can think of.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) may not have begun the trend toward English pastoral music in the early twentieth century, but he was certainly one of the movement’s leading practitioners. Starting as early as 1900 with his aptly named Bucolic Suite, the man continued to produce charming, serene, idyllic tunes for full orchestra, strings, and chorus right up until the time of his death. In this Naxos collection, English conductor James Judd leads the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in some of the composer’s most famous short works.

The Fantasia on Greensleeves lends its name to the album, but I’m sure that’s only because it’s one of Vaughan Williams’s most-popular pieces. Judd takes it at a tempo that is a little more vigorous than we normally hear it, but which invests it with a new life and temperament. While this approach may seem a bit more distanced from its subject matter than that of some other conductors, Judd’s is a pleasant take on an old subject without doing any serious harm to the spirit of the work. The conductor’s rendering of the other pieces, like the Tallis Fantasia and Norfolk Rhapsody, seems more traditional, while his Fen Country appears more gentle and flowing than ever.

The Concerto Grosso, the newest composition of the group, written in 1950, is also the least rustic.  Vaughan Williams originally intended it for something like four hundred strings, a mighty big production, and while it shows only hints of the folk-music idiom the other pieces rather thrive on, it is perhaps the least Vaughan Williams-like and the least-familiar work in the set. Under Maestro Judd, however, it makes a nice contrast to the other melodies on the agenda, and Judd brings out most of the work’s splendor.

The sound we get from the New Zealand players may not be in a class with the Philharmonia or the London Philharmonic, but it is plenty good, nevertheless, thanks in part to Naxos’s wide stereo spread and warm, smooth sonics. Inner detail is not particularly telling, but the overall tonal balance is quite natural, which more than makes up for any minor deficiencies. If you cannot find or cannot afford the classic Vaughan Williams recordings by Sir John Barbirolli (EMI), Sir Adrian Boult (EMI), Vernon Handley (EMI), Andre Previn (RCA) and the like, certainly Judd makes an acceptable substitute, and you can hardly say the price isn’t right.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa