Andrew Manze / James Ehnes / Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending; Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

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This recording is something of an addendum to the critically and commercially successful cycle of Ralph Vaughan Williams' symphonies issued by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Andrew Manze. It was recorded in 2017 but not issued until late 2019; some of these pieces are better known than any of the symphonies, and the album could easily have served general listeners as an introduction to the series. Of course, it can still serve that purpose. Perhaps no Vaughan Williams work is more familiar than The Lark Ascending, and perhaps the marketers thought the album would present a less distinctive product if offered first. As it happens, The Lark Ascending is the big news here. All of the performances have the rich sound and deliberate, detailed orchestral work that has characterized the symphony performances, but The Lark Ascending is extraordinary. Violinist James Ehnes -- who despite his sterling reputation, gets no billing on the cover -- displays flawless intonation here, and his precise sound works beautifully: although The Lark Ascending has a bit of the salon about it, it is not a sentimental work. Manze keeps the dynamics quiet throughout, and as the bird takes its final flight, Ehnes achieves an awesome pianissimo, and Onyx engineers, working at Liverpool's Philharmonic Hall, bring the feeling, very rare on recordings, of being present at an extraordinary performance. The rest of the program was recorded at the Friary in Liverpool, and it offers many rewards in terms of orchestral sound (in the nearly-as-familiar Fantasia on Greensleeves and Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis) and more unusual repertory (Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus and the quite rare orchestral-only version of the Serenade to Music). All this adds up to a Vaughan Williams recording to be kept, heard repeatedly, and cherished.

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