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CD: AmazonUK AmazonUS

Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Mystical Songs - Choral Music of Vaughan Williams
O Clap your Hands* (1920) [3:20]
O Taste and See (1953) [1:37]
Five Mystical Songs (1911) ** [19:06]
Loch Lomond (1931) [3:55]
Bushes and Briars (1908) [3:21]
Orpheus with his Lute (1903) (arr. Archibald McDowell) [2:51]
Silent Noon (1901) (arr. Ronald Kauffmann) [4:31]
Lord, Thou hast been our Refuge (1921) [8:48]
Mass in G minor (1921) [25:31]
O How Amiable (1934) (arr. Jerry Brubaker)* [4:05]
Choir of Trinity College, University of Melbourne; *Australian Brass Ensemble; **TinAlley String Quartet; Jonathan Bradley (organ and piano); Michael Leighton Jones (director and **baritone)
rec. 3 - 7 and 10 December 2007, Trinity College Chapel, Melbourne
Texts & translation included.
ABC CLASSICS 476 6906 [77:14]
Experience Classicsonline

This disc presents a good cross-section of Vaughan Williams’s choral music, some of it in slightly unfamiliar guise. The Five Mystical Songs, for example, are given in a rarely heard version, by RVW himself, with accompaniment by piano and string quartet. A couple of solo songs also appear in choral guise, though for my money neither arrangement is to the benefit of the song concerned.

Inevitably, the two major works on the CD will occasion the greatest interest. I must admit that I was unaware of the existence of the version of Five Mystical Songs that’s recorded here. We read in the notes that a previous recording exists (two in fact: Meridian and Naxos) but that this is the first recording to include the chorus parts. Inevitably, one thinks also of the roughly contemporaneous song cycle On Wenlock Edge, which employs the same instrumental forces. On the evidence of this performance I’d say that the instrumental scoring is more effective in On Wenlock Edge. During Five Mystical Songs the string players don’t always succeed in making their presence felt - and, no, that’s not a coded way of saying that the choir drowns them out - especially in the outer songs. The scoring is more effective - and closer to the sound world of On Wenlock Edge in the middle three songs. However, whilst it’s interesting to hear this version it most certainly would not alter my preference to hear Five Mystical Songs in its orchestral guise or, failing that, in the version for solo baritone and piano.

As to the performance itself, the Director of the choir, Michael Leighton Jones, sings the solo role and, presumably directs the performance also. He has a pleasant, fairly light voice and he sings with intelligence, clarity and evident affection for the music. His voice is produced evenly throughout its compass and his diction is immaculate. Unfortunately, I don’t find his voice - or his interpretation - particularly distinctive. Sadly he’s no match for such singers as Simon Keenlyside, who sings the version for soloist and piano (see review), still less for Sir Thomas Allen, in the orchestral version (see review). And if you can find a copy of John Shirley-Quirk’s EMI recording with Sir David Willcocks from the 1970s then that’s a version that even now sets many benchmarks. I’m sorry to report that the present performance, whilst eminently serviceable, doesn’t really measure up beside these rival recordings.

The account of the Mass in G Minor also suffers from comparisons. In fact, even without comparisons I don’t think it’s a really recommendable performance. The Mass is RVW’s greatest accomplishment in the field of choral music and as severe a test for the singers as it can be a serene experience for the listener. It must be sung with great finesse but also with confidence and I don’t really feel that these young Australian singers exhibit quite the degree of confidence that the work demands. Furthermore, the solo quartet, drawn from the ranks of the choir, is not really up to the job. In particular I noticed some occasions where the pitching is not completely true, especially in the higher voices - and that’s a flaw that occasionally extends to the full choir also.

This unfortunate trait is in evidence as early as the Kyrie. By comparison, if one listens to the Corydon Singers (see review) or to the Holst Singers (see review) tuning is immaculate and the singing is beautifully balanced and weighted. Admittedly, both of these are choirs comprised of professional singers. But if one listens instead to a comparably young choir, the excellent Laudibus (see review), one finds so much more assurance and consistent vocal skill, not just in the Kyrie but also throughout the Mass. The other thing that militates against this Melbourne recording, I’m afraid, is the sound that the choir produces. Twenty-five singers are listed in the booklet, of which the largest section is the sopranos, comprising eight voices. These young sopranos produce a somewhat edgy, youthful tone. In addition the lower voices don’t yet seem to have the maturity and depth to give a sufficiently solid foundation to the ensemble sound. The result is a treble-heavy sound that becomes a bit wearing. There are a number of well-executed stretches in the Mass - the Gloria is bright and positive and the ‘Et incarnatus’ section of the Credo is very atmospheric and evidences good preparation and attention to balance. Against that, however, the succeeding ‘Et Resurrexit’ betrays the lack of tonal weight in the choir. This is a performance that would be very enjoyable heard once in a concert or service but which, I fear, doesn’t really stand up to the scrutiny of repeated listening.

Some of the smaller pieces fare well, including nice, fresh accounts of the two folk song arrangements. As I indicated at the start, I don’t much care for the choral arrangements - not by RVW - of Orpheus with his Lute or, especially, of Silent Noon. The latter is set for four-part male chorus and the egregious choral harmonies are most unwelcome. These are two fine solo songs and the respective arrangers should have resisted the temptation to ‘improve’ them. The choir makes a good job of Lord, Thou hast been our Refuge, although the edgy soprano tone is here again apparent and O How Amiable, with resplendent brass, makes for a stirring conclusion. What a good idea, by the way, to include two pieces in which RVW made use of that great hymn tune ‘O God, Our Help in Ages Past’ and how sensible to place another piece between them. And if the recital has a stirring end it also has a suitably imposing beginning in the shape of O Clap your Hands.

I’m genuinely sorry that I can’t give a warmer welcome to this disc. It’s a well thought-out and interesting programme and there’s a good deal to enjoy. However, most collectors will consider acquiring it either for Mass in G Minor or for Five Mystical Songs and one is duty bound to point out that there are better versions of both works in the catalogue. Comparisons are cruel but in a competitive market they are inevitable.

John Quinn

see also review by Michael Cookson



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