O Gladsome Light

gladsome lightThis review first appeared in the print edition of Opera Canada.

O Gladsome Lightis a collection of sacred songs, hymns and meditations by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst and his pupil Edmund Rubbra. They are performed by various permutations of Lawrence Wiliford, tenor, Stephen Philcox, piano and Marie Bérard and Keith Hamm, respectively Concertmaster and Principal Violist of the COC Orchestra.

The disk kicks off with Holst’s Four songs for voice and violin Op. 35.They are quiet, meditative settings of anonymous medieval devotional texts and pretty much set the mood for the rest of the disk. The Rubbra songs that follow are similar in style and mood. This is perhaps accentuated by the accompaniments which are intended to mimic the harp. In this, and a second set of Rubbra songs there is a strong “Celtic Twilight” influence that doesn’t up the energy level. The same might be said of Holst’s The Heart Worships, another meditative number.

Things do get a bit livelier with the Vaughan Williams Four hymns for tenor, piano and viola, which set an eclectic set of devotional poems. The accompaniment is much denser and more dramatic and makes much fuller use of the potential of the piano. The two solo numbers by Rubbra for respectively violin and viola also add some much needed contrast.

I can’t fault the performances. Wiliford sings beautifully in what one might call the “Aldeburgh style”. It’s light, clear, sensitive and every word is clearly audible. I think it does the music full justice. His collaborators are equally sensitive. What I might question is how many people would want to listen to an hour of music all very much in the same quiet emotional space. Perhaps it’s more a disc for dipping into.

The recordings of the vocal numbers were made at Grace Church on the Hill in Toronto and have quite a resonant, churchy, acoustic that is perfectly appropriate to the music. The same is true of the two instrumentals recorded at St. John Chrysostom in Newmarket. Full texts and a great deal of useful explanatory material is included in the booklet accompanying the CD.

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