The most familiar and earliest of the works here – George Butterworth’s orchestral rhapsody A Shropshire Lad, which was completed in 1913 – sets the tone for this elegiac collection, the rest of which is directly or indirectly connected with the first world war and memories of those who died in it. Two of the works here appear in versions that are recorded for the first time: Philip Lancaster’s orchestration of the anthem-like choral setting by Ivor Gurney of Edward Thomas’s The Trumpet; and Gerald Finzi’s Requiem da Camera, in a new performing edition by Christian Alexander.
Requiem da Camera, which Finzi composed in the 1920s in memory of his teacher Ernest Farrar, who died on the Somme in 1918, was his first attempt at an extended work. Its centrepiece is a baritone setting of Hardy’s In Time of the Breaking of Nations, flanked by choral settings of Masefield and Gibson and introduced with an orchestral prelude that has phrases from Butterworth’s Housman song Loveliest of Trees woven through it. It was never performed complete in Finzi’s lifetime, and has only been recorded once before (by Richard Hickox on Chandos, in a different edition) so this version, intelligently paced by Hilary Davan Wetton with Roderick Williams as the matchless baritone soloist, is a significant addition to the Finzi catalogue.
Alongside it and the Butterworth – which Davan Wetton makes more than usually urgent and anguished while revealing its unexpected debt to Sibelius – the Vaughan Williams rarity, An Oxford Elegy, seems rather contrived and routine. Using extracts from Matthew Arnold’s The Scholar Gypsy, it dates from the late 1940s, but harks to the first world war and to the friends including Butterworth that Vaughan Williams lost then. The chorus is largely wordless, and most of the text is delivered as spoken narration (by Jeremy Irons in this case) – could it be that Vaughan Williams got the idea from Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, composed a few years earlier? Yet it’s never totally convincing, and it’s the Finzi especially that makes the disc so worthwhile.