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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
CHORAL WORKS
Motets; Lord, Thou hast been our refuge ; Prayer to the Father of Heaven ; O Vos Omnes ; O Clap you hands ; O taste and see ; O how amiable are thy dwellings; Hymn ‘Come down O Love divine’. Mass in G minor
Elora Festival Singers directed by Noel Edison with organist Thomas Fitches
Recorded February 2000, St. Mary Magdalen's Church Toronto
NAXOS 8.554826 [56.11]


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The Elora Singers may not be well known, if at all in Britain but they are a top choir in Canada where they are the lynch-pin of the Elora Festival, a month long celebration of choral music held each summer in the village of Elora. They were formed in 1980 and have made other recordings for Naxos. It is typical of Naxos to discover these lesser-known top quality performers and to get the best out of them.

Programming is important and this one is well thought out and ideal for the voices. It’s interesting also to discover that VW has at last got across the Atlantic into the repertoire of choirs like this.

Now if you already have a recording of the Vaughan Williams Mass then hang onto it. As good and moving, as this performance is it does not supplant most others. What might attract you to this recording, apart from the price, might be the accompanying items which are interesting and not normally found in the context of the Mass. Take for example ‘O vos Omnes’ written, like the Mass for Richard Terry at Westminster Cathedral. Both date from 1922. It is a rather searching and mysterious setting for Holy Week of a passage in the Lamentations of Jeremiah set famously by Tallis and Gesualdo. Here it is set for sopranos and altos, in writing not a million miles away from the Agnus dei of the Mass, until the climax "Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum" when to rich chords the lower voices enter.

I can also admit that whilst I knew that VW had set John Skelton (1464-1529) in the ‘Five Tudor Portraits’ I didn’t realise that he had set Skelton in the very moving homophonic setting ‘Prayer to the Father of Heaven’, which begins ‘O radiant luminary of light interminable’ set to ethereally moving harmonies. I was distinctly reminded in the handling of the root position chords of VW’s setting of ‘Silence and Music’, written four years later as his contribution to ‘Garland for the Queen’ at the time of the Coronation.

I feel mostly very positive about the performance of the ‘Mass’. There are however a few reservations.

I can’t be sure if it is the recording or the acoustic or the singers but there are a number of occasions when VW asks for ff and it never really happens. This is particularly important in the Gloria which has an unusual amount of slow reflective music but which culminates in the double choir A-men in 8 parts. The effect here is too smooth and lacking in strength. Indeed Noel Edison seems to think of VW as a composer without well… guts. The quiet reflective singing is wonderful; the louder passages needing fire do not come off. The opening of the Credo is marked Allegro con moto and f but the singers struggle to make an acceptable Allegro and are certainly not forte. A passage at letter D and for a further 13 bars beginning ‘Gentium non factum' is marked ff. and again this does not happen. In the ‘Qui propter’ that follows, the drama is lost. Marked poco tranquillo there seems little contrast of tempo and even less than there should be in dynamics. To hear how this should be done the reader should listen to the Hyperion recording by the Corydon singers under Matthew Best (CDA 66242 - not at present available)

The last items are well known anthems and culminate in the composer’s most beautiful hymn, ‘Come down O Love divine’. They are sung with great affection and beauty. ‘O taste and See’ was written as part of the Coronation Service. ‘O Clap you hands’, written in 1920, is justly popular, although here it lacks bite and real excitement, and much the same can be said of ‘O how amiable are thy dwellings’, from 1934 written for the dedication of a church.

I do feel that the singers missed a trick by not recording at least one of VW’s moving plainsong hymn harmonizations as they are mentioned in Keith Anderson’s booklet notes (along with a useful overview of the composer’s church music career). As the CD is just less than an hour in duration a couple of them might have given us an even better and more rounded view of this great choral composer.

Gary Higginson



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