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American Record Guide, December 2009

These two Christmas works make a logical coupling, and both are competently done. The chorus does very well in exuberant sections (like the opening of Hodie), the soloists are more than satisfactory, and Wetton moves things along with excitement and drama.

Penguin Guide, January 2009

In Hodie there is an attractive medieval flavour to these settings of Christmas texts, with sharp cross-rhythms, which is well brought out on Naxos—with Janice Watson an excellent, creamy-toned soprano. The main vocal items are linked by narration in recitative, with the recording bringing excellent separation of the different elements, including the organ. The brassy March of the Three Kings brings a colourful oriental flavour. The much better-known Fantasia on Christmas Carols, dedicated to the leading folk-songs collector, Cecil Sharp, makes an ideal coupling, similarly well performed, making this Naxos disc a fine alternative to the EMI pairing.

John Terauds
Toronto Star, December 2008

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ powerful Christmas cantata Hodie is given a deep ‘n’ delicious-sounding interpretation by the Guildford Choral Society and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra led by Hilary Davan Wetton. Too bad we don’t hear this piece more often. Also includes the Fantasia on Christmas Carols.

James L. Queen
Choral Journal, September 2008

Introduced by a haunting cello melody, “This is the truth sent from above” is proclaimed energetically by baritone Stephen Gadd above a wordless choral accompaniment. In the last stanza the chorus takes over, leading to the opening cello solo reprised as a bridge to “Come all you worthy gentlemen that may be standing by,” the Somerset carol known better to us in the version, with merry gentlemen who rest. As that music fades into its final cadence, the baritone springs into the Sussex carol “On Christmas night all Christians sing,” known to many from the Willcocks and Ledger arrangements. The chorus joins each stanza with imitative exuberance, finally rising from triple to duple meter. The baritone announces the final carol, “God bless the ruler of this house,” sung with an overlay of phrases from the Sussex carol. Voices and orchestra weave an exciting flourish of canonic and imitative lines at the end of each stanza. The music is, above all, very listenable and full of joyous Christmas sounds. The performance led by Hilary Davan Wetton is superb.

James McCarthy
Limelight, June 2008

The composer lets all his celebratory stops out; and he has more effective stops in this field than any other English composer excepting Britten and Elgar…it is a boots-and-all performance with excellent soloists and a fine boys choir…The composer’s Fantasia is also well performed. It makes an ideal filler for the main work.

Michael Southern
Australian Hi-Fi, February 2008

The performance [of Hodie] on Naxos is bluff and jolly, reflecting the nature of the work with some hearty singing…showing that sacred music is not always somber and serious…[The Fantasia] is an approachable popular work of familiar carols, and again, given a fine, enjoyable, performance.

Scott Cantrell
The Dallas Morning News, December 2007

‘Hodie’ CD deserves holiday audience. Christmas cantata is both exuberant and touching.

Don’t be put off by the grim landscape on this CD’s wraparound cardboard cover. Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Christmas cantata Hodie is about as life-affirming as music gets, by turns stirring and touching. And it gets quite a sympathetic performance here under conductor Hilary Davan Wetton.The English composer’s creative spark was undimmed into his 80s, his last years yielding such imaginative works as the Eighth and Ninth symphonies and the Tuba Concerto. The exuberant fanfares and choral syncopations opening Hodie sound like a young man’s music, but well-steeped wisdom informs what follows.

As with the Bach passions, which Vaughan Williams conducted many times, Hodie frames poetic meditations with biblical narrative. But while Bach makes a tenor soloist his narrator, Vaughan Williams assigns the role to a boys choir, with simple organ accompaniment.

While Bach’s arias set a variety of minor baroque poetasters, Vaughan Williams draws on first-rate verses by George Herbert, Milton and Hardy, not to mention his new wife, Ursula. The exuberant opening chorus is a setting of the same Latin Christmas antiphon, “Today Christ is born,” that frames Britten’s Ceremony of Carols.

Vaughan Williams uses the full resources of the modern symphony orchestra, flashing brilliantly in the tenor’s “Bright portals of the sky,” gently lapping in the lullaby “Sweet was the song.” The chorus gets two exquisite unaccompanied numbers, “The blessed Son of God” and “No sad thought his soul affright.”

It’s a shame that Messiah and Nutcracker so dominate the Christmas-music scene to the exclusion of so attractive a work as Hodie. (It would make a nice alternative to some of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s kitschy Christmas shows.) But this new recording just may win the hourlong piece new friends.

The recorded sound—from London’s Cadogan Hall, a former Christian Science church recycled as a 900-seat concert hall—isn’t the last word in transparency. But it’s more than adequate, and the performance is fetching start to finish. Girls’ voices work as well as boys’ in the narration, although the St. Catherine’s School Choir sometimes lands on the low side of upper notes. Soloists Janice Watson, Peter Hoare and Stephen Gadd are thoroughly satisfying.

Mr. Gadd is also featured in the no less engaging Fantasia on Christmas Carols. Few of the carols in this medley—for baritone, chorus and orchestra—are well-known this side of the Atlantic, but they’re all lovely.

David Vernier, December 2007

As revered as Vaughan Williams is among choral music fans, it’s remarkable that none of his original Christmas pieces has achieved the kind of popularity or concert-ubiquitousness you might expect (on the scale of, say, Darke’s In the bleak midwinter, or on a larger scale, Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols), especially considering the significant number of Christmas-themed works he wrote and his expertise as a composer for voices. The Fantasia on Christmas Carols might have been such a work, and it’s certainly attractive enough, full of wonderful tunes, scored to maximize a festive mood. Perhaps it is that very scoring—for orchestra and requiring a baritone soloist—that prevents more frequent programming; or perhaps it’s the style, which is formulaic (especially for the chorus) and, especially in the big, recurring climaxes, seems too heavily orchestrated, losing both the choir and—except for the opening “The truth sent from above”—the essentially simple character of the carols.

That’s not to say the Fantasia isn’t a good piece or that it doesn’t accomplish its purpose—to reflect and celebrate the wonder, mystery, and joyful spirit of Christmas; but its success depends largely on a strong baritone soloist and a first-rate orchestra, as well as achieving good balances among the three performing components. And that’s mostly what we have here, save for baritone Stephen Gadd’s tendency toward a wide vibrato that obscures pitch, and balances that invariably favor the orchestra in louder sections. The chorus certainly conveys the “joyful spirit” mentioned above, and the orchestra is undeniably “first-rate”. However, there are better overall renditions of the Fantasia on disc, namely the Corydon Singers on Hyperion and Cambridge Singers on Collegium, both of which accomplish the festive mood with better sound, more judicious balances, and better soloists.

For many listeners, however, the reason to own this recording is the Hodie, which is virtually non-existent in the catalog (apparently only one other version—the one from King’s College on EMI, recorded in 1965—is currently available). This nearly hour-long work follows the essential parts of the Christmas story, using choruses, vocal solos, and a periodic “narration”, sung in unison chant by a children’s choir accompanied by organ, which lends a “church-y” aspect to this “Christmas Cantata”. The choruses represent some of Vaughan Williams’ more engaging efforts in the genre, and a few of these—particularly the a cappella The blessed Son of God—are often sung separately as concert pieces.

Several of the solo songs show why Vaughan Williams is justly famed for his skill in the genre—It was the winter cold; The shepherds sing; Bright portals of the sky—and these are expertly sung (respectively) by soprano Janice Watson, baritone Stephen Gadd, and tenor Peter Hoare. Again, the choruses and orchestra are top-notch, and if the orchestration can be more than a little Hollywood-ish at times and the narrations somewhat meandering, overall this is a very satisfying work that truly fills the concert hall with the sense of occasion that the real Christmas story deserves.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, November 2007

Two very differing works in which Vaughan Williams celebrates the festive season, opening with the Fantasia on Christmas Carols, a regular feature in the UK’s ever popular choral concerts that lead up to Christmas. He chose carols well-known to his audience, decorating them with a new orchestral garb, and alternating between a baritone soloist and spicy choral arrangements. It was completed in 1912, a relatively early work from a composer who matured late in life. Hodie, a Christmas Cantata, came very much later, Vaughan Williams already eighty-two when it was completed, the extended score based on the Anglican service of nine lessons and carols, but here using texts by Milton, Hardy, and Herbert bound together by the story of the Nativity as described in the bible. That narrative is given to a unison childrens’ choir, the score also calling for soprano, tenor and baritone soloists. The work mixes dramatic moments with passages of great beauty, the soprano often flying on high in an ethereal role.Though by the time it was composed in the 1950’s the style was already looking backwards for its genesis, there are few works that more readily capture that quintessential British musical landscape. The choice of soloists is ideal, Peter Hoare splendid in his few moments, while Janice Watson has that purity of voice the work calls for. The adult and childrens’ choirs are superb, while the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is vibrant in both works with punchy brass and timpani adding to the meaty moments. Hilary Davan Wetton is so much at home in this era, tempos seemingly having been self-selecting. Recorded in London’s Cadogan Hall the sound quality is everything you could wish for. Superb.

Brian Wilson
MusicWeb International, November 2007

Though not quite ideal in the popular Fantasia, this version of Hodie brings to life a work which I had previously written off as one of RVW’s few failures. Stephen Gadd’s weightier baritone also sounds more appropriate here than in the Fantasia, especially in the wistful setting of Hardy’s The Oxen (track 8); the other soloists are equally fine. Janice Watson blends well with the choir in the lullaby Sweet was the song (track 12) rising above them just enough without drowning them. Peter Hoare’s voice is also just right for Bright portals (track 13) rising almost to the heights suggested by the opening fanfare but with a just a hint of human fallibility.

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