If you look at the picture on the booklet cover you are confronted by 18 musicians all looking quite formidable. In back row centre is RVW himself, looking a little demur in such company. The lower row of women has Henry Wood sitting a little impatiently and looking to his right. The rest are singers chosen for the first performance of VW ‘s ‘Serenade to Music ‘composed for the 50th Anniversary of Sir Henry’s professional life as a conductor, and first heard in 1938.

That recording has been available on CD before, but what makes this CD unique is that each of the other singers is given a moment to shine on their own, in recordings transferred brilliantly from 78s.

To some extent the style of singing, almost a hundred years ago, does not quite appeal now-a-days. You may not appreciate the amount of vibrato some of these singers utilise. But technically, phrasing and breathing, are always beautifully thought out, and the performances of what may well have been some of their favourite songs and opera extracts (which, incidentally, are sung in English translations) are always sensitive. However the intonation and tuning may not be quite so reliable. Remember however, that this is what the composers heard and probably expected. 

Some shine more than others I feel. Top of my list would go Isobel Baillie whose pure timbre floats effortlessly above the organ, cello and harp in the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria. It is though interesting that some other songs are now little-known. For instance, Somervell’s gentle ‘Shepherd’s Song’ given with the easy flowing voice of Elsie Suddaby. The honey-toned Walter Widdop chose to record an impassioned version of Amy Woodforde-Finden’s now forgotten but powerful song A Request. As for the men, Heddle Nash singing Linden Lee in such a respectful and lyrical manner stands out, as does Parry Jones singing Warlock.

Central to the disc comes The Serenade to Music in which all 16 soloists get a chance for their moment in the sun. The excellently planned booklet, which has all of the texts, also indicates who sings which line. And what a wonderful sound they all make as an ensemble with each voice distinctive and beautifully balanced, along with the orchestral ensemble, so sensitively devised by VW. It has made me realise once again, what a wonderful piece it is. The recording has its disadvantages of course, and I would not want it to be my only recording, but it is a fascinating insight.

Review by Gary Higginson