Yesterday I mentioned Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ‘Hodie’, but did not rhapsodize about it. Allow me to rhapsodize: ‘Hodie’ is hard to categorize generically–it includes a boys’ choir chanting the text of the Christmas story from Luke 2, huge orchestral & choral settings of medieval chant texts, a couple of sublime chorales, and arias and chorales setting British poems on Christmas themes. I think, actually, that I first got hooked on poetry because of this piece. It has the best parts of Milton’s ode, ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,’ George Herbert’s “Christmas Day,” and Thomas Hardy’s small, perfect poem, “The Oxen”:
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
‘Now they are all on their knees,’
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearth-side ease.
We pictured the meek, mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
‘Come; see the oxen kneel,
In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know’,
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
*That* is what the English language is for! And Vaughan Williams’ setting of it is why God made baritones. You can hear a tantalizing snippet here. While you’re there, scroll down a couple and listen to Janet Baker singing the Lullaby–this recording was made in her glory years and her voice is rich and tender but not yet heavy. (Perhaps this is as good a place as any to reveal that I’ve been in negotiations with God for several years to include, as part of my eternal reward, 90 minutes of being a really great mezzo. I believe that this would be the concluding piece in my recital. You’re all invited.)
Enough rhapsodizing–I really wish this piece were as well-known as Handel’s “Messiah.” It’s such different music that it’s impossible to say one is better than the other, but there’s a richness, even a little tragic weight, to the Vaughan Williams within a relatively spare and concise piece (just exactly an hour long), that I find an appealing counterweight to Handel’s sprawling and optimistic idiom.
Since we’re there, let’s talk Messiah: of course it’s great, of course everyone should hear it a half-dozen times or so every year. But, for pity’s sake, listen to the whole thing!! Whatever you do, do NOT mistake MoTab’s old highlight reel with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Ormandy for “Messiah”. Ormandy and MoTab just reinforce each other’s worst tendencies, and the result is a gooey, overlush mess that has little to do with Handel. I sort of like it sometimes, in a nostalgic mood, but it’s important to recognize that listening to this is like eating Velveeta (you know, a product where the label has to insist that it’s “cheese food”, because otherwise people would doubt that it’s even edible) instead of any of the many luscious creations that deserve the name cheese. I like Christopher Hogwood’s recording with the Academy of Ancient Music and Emma Kirkby, but lots of people find this recording bloodless. They often prefer this recording by the Boston Baroque. I think this one is good, too, but I really love Emma Kirkby and Carolyn Watkinson, the soloists on the other. (For a gorgonzola, I’m pretty dry, I guess :)) If you just gotta have big and modern, then this recording with the London Philharmonic is not bad at all. Robert Shaw’s late 60s take is an interesting compromise–modern instruments, but scaled-down instrumentation, and mostly faster tempos than the Ormandy or other pre-70s recordings. And nobody gets clean, unfussy choral sound and diction better than Shaw.
It’s awfully hard to pick favorites from Messiah, but, if pressed, I’d choose “He Was Despised” (as long as it’s performed with a light touch, not the morbidly obese, vibrato-ey nasal alto style sometimes inexplicably preferred for this piece), “Behold and see if there be any grief”, “He trusted in God” and “But thou didst not leave his soul in hell”, and, of course “He Shall Feed His Flock”,” I Know that My Redeemer Liveth”, and “Comfort Ye” * and… oh never mind; I said it was too hard to pick favorites! What are yours?
*(random capitalization of titles especially for Matt Evans)