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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Mass in G minor* (1922) [21’41"]
Festival Te Deum in F major** (1937) [7’35"]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)

‘My love dwelt in a northern land’, Op. 18 No.3 (1890) [4’18"]
Two Choral Songs, Op. 71 (1914): ‘The Shower’ [2’26"]; ‘The Fountain’ [3’56"]
‘Go, song of mine’, Op. 57 (1909) [4’24"]
‘Death on the hills’, Op. 72 (1914) [3’14"]
Two Choral Songs, Op. 73 (1914): ‘Serenade’ [2’07"]; ‘Love’s tempest’ [2’59"]
*Isobel Collyer (soprano); Joya Logan (alto); Christopher Mercer (tenor); Martin Johnson (bass)
** John Birch (organ)
The Holst Singers/Hilary Davan Wetton
Recorded in St. Paul’s Girls’ School, Brook Green, London in April 1990
REGIS RRC 1135 [54’13"]

Regis here win our gratitude by restoring to the catalogue this recording which was originally issued on the Unicorn-Kanchana label.

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, 1’20")

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 disc.

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 recital (8.554826)

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 singers.

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.

John Quinn

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