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: