Regis here win our gratitude by restoring to
the catalogue this recording which was originally issued on the
RVW dedicated the G minor Mass to Gustav Holst
and his occasional choir, the Whitsuntide Singers. How appropriate
that this recording should have been made by a choir which is
named after Holst and that the venue for the recording should
have been the very school where Vaughan Williams’s great friend
was a Director of Music between 1905 and his death in 1934.
Elgar’s part-songs may not be too familiar to
many music lovers. As a group they are not unimportant amongst
his oeuvre and the seven chosen here can be counted with
his best. The selection shows Elgar’s technical skills at a high
level and there is plenty of inspiration to admire as well. One
of the most memorable passages occurs in My love dwelt in a
northern land at the words "and oft that month…"
where the sopranos and first tenors float a long-breathed melody
over a gently throbbing accompaniment from the rest of the choir.
This section is splendidly done by the Holst Singers (track 1,
Their account of Go, song of mine (track
4), which is by common consent one of Elgar’s greatest such compositions,
is also very successful. The liner notes, which are well written
and informative, imply that Elgar wrote this song in response
to the news of the death of his great friend, Alfred Jaeger. However,
I think it’s clear from reading Jerrold Northrop Moore’s magisterial
Edward Elgar: a creative life (1984), pp 552-5, that the
song was written before Elgar learned of his friend’s demise.
Whatever the chronology, it’s a great part-song and the Holst
Singers do it justice.
Throughout these performances (and, indeed, throughout
the whole CD) the choir pays scrupulous attention to details of
dynamics, accents and phrasing. The sound is fresh, very well
focused and blended. In addition, diction is impeccable as is
tuning. It’s clear that Hilary Davan Wetton has prepared his singers
extremely well and that he is completely "inside" all
the music they perform here. A good example of both the technical
skill and interpretative imagination at work here comes at the
start of Love’s tempest (track 7), which is most poetically
done. The atmosphere created at the opening words "Silent
lay the sapphire ocean" is redolent of RVW’s incomparable
part-song The Cloud Capp’d Towers.
For this recital the Holst Singers numbered 39
performers (14 sopranos, 8 altos (all female), 8 tenors and 9
basses.) It’s been interesting to compare their recording with
the performances by the London Symphony Chorus under Vernon Handley
on a Hyperion disc entirely devoted to Elgar part-songs (CDA67019).
Though Hyperion gives no list of personnel I suspect that the
LSO chorus was quite a bit larger (and nothing wrong with that
since Elgar would have expected large choirs to sing these songs).
They are more distantly recorded than are the Holst Singers. Indeed,
I’d go so far as to say that the Hyperion recorded sound is more
diffuse (the venue is not specified). I find the Holst Singers
are clearer and they sound to be positioned better within the
overall acoustic. They strike the ear as being more integrated
as an ensemble than their LSO rivals.
Though I yield to no-one in my admiration for
Vernon Handley as an Elgarian, on balance, I prefer Wetton in
these songs. Largely it’s a matter of detail, for Handley’s performances
are good and have much to commend them. For instance in My
love dwelt in a northern land, the Holst Singers make much
more of the crucial accents at the words "Till like a brand
for battle drawn" (track 1, 2’25" on their CD). Again,
Handley adopts a broader tempo for Go, song of mine, possibly
to accommodate larger forces and I find I prefer Wetton’s slightly
greater sense of flow. Also, are there just occasional hints of
waywardness of pitch from the LSO Singers? The Holst Singers (who
are professionals, I believe) are rock-steady in tuning. So, in
the Elgar items I find I have a definite preference for the Regis
In the Mass, the Holst Singers are once again
in competition with a Hyperion release. The Corydon Singers’ recording
of the G minor Mass (coupled with Howells’ Requiem and
the self-same RVW Te Deum included here) has long been
a benchmark recording for me (CDA66076). It’s at full price but
Naxos has a budget priced alternative from the professional Canadian
choir, the Elora Festival Singers, in an all-Vaughan Williams
Comparing the three I’m afraid that I soon found
that the Naxos version, though it has many good points, is not
competitive. The style of singing of the Canadian choir is rather
smooth and monochrome. They don’t make anything like enough dynamic
contrast compared with their rivals (who both observe every marking
in the score) and I don’t find them as buoyant or positive in
the louder or faster stretches of music. In fact I felt theirs
was a rather self-consciously beautiful account, hobbled in particular
by an apparent reluctance to sing at anything above mezzo forte.
So, for example, the Holst Singers attack the
allegro section in the ‘Gloria’, at the words "Laudamus Te"
(track 10, 0’30") much more strongly and confidently than
do the Canadians. Indeed, the British choir takes a whole minute
less to sing the ‘Gloria’, quite a difference in a relatively
short movement, which the Holst Singers dispatch in 3’23"
without any suggestion of rushing the music. I also think that
the Canadian soloists are not as vocally strong as either set
of British soloists, especially the tenor, and the Canadian solo
team is less clearly recorded. Finally, the Naxos recording does
not give sufficient spatial differentiation between the twin choirs.
On that latter point the Corydon Singers’ recording
scores most strongly of all. Spatial separation between Choir
1 (left hand channel) and Choir 2 (right hand) is excellent without
sounding artificial. The soloists are also well balanced (though
the Holst Singer’s soloists are similarly well positioned). Incidentally,
the Corydon recording is unique among mixed-choir recordings in
my experience by using a solo male alto (Michael Chance, no less)
As performances and interpretations, there is
little to choose between the Holst Singers and the Corydon Singers.
Both are excellent. Furthermore, as I’ve indicated above, the
Holst Singers are scrupulously attentive to detail but the Corydons
match them at every turn. I admire the Holst Singer’s ethereal
beauty in the ‘Kyrie’ and they achieve a magical distancing at
the beginning of the ‘Sanctus’. In the ‘Credo’ the Holst Singers
are outstanding at the hushed "Et homo factus est" (track
11. 2’09") but then the Corydons are pretty impressive at
this point too.
There were a couple of places where momentarily
I definitely preferred one version. In the ‘Sanctus’, at the words
"Pleni sunt Coeli" (track 12, 1’14") Wetton’s tempo
is slightly brisker than the one adopted by Matthew Best on the
Corydon disc. As a result the music trips along delightfully,
with every strand clear as Vaughan Williams builds up the texture
and the tension. At this point my vote goes to the Regis recording.
Wetton also scores marginally in the ‘Agnus Dei’, I think, with
a swifter tempo which makes the pleas for peace more agitated.
That said, this is one of the points in the score where the spatial
separation of the two choirs is vital and so the Regis recording’s
advantage is cancelled out by the better Hyperion placing of the
In the final analysis it’s this point which confirms
my preference for the Corydon performance of the Mass, though
in terms of interpretation and performance the Regis account runs
it extremely close. Both choirs do the ebullient Te Deum very
well (it’s an occasional piece, written for the coronation of
King George VI in 1937).
With very good documentation, including full
texts, and top-drawer performances this Regis CD is an outstanding
bargain in every way. It’s reissue is warmly to be welcomed and
I recommend it with great enthusiasm.