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Requiem Æternam
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983) Requiem (1935) [20’31”]; Motet: Take him, earth, for cherishing (1964) [9’05”]
Frank MARTIN (1890-1974) Mass (1922/6) [26’00“] Sally Barber (sop); Julia Field (alto); Mark Johnstone (tenor); Andrew Angus (bar) Vasari Singers/Jeremy Backhouse Recording: All Hallows, Gospel Oak 18-20 February 1994 DDD
SIGNUM TWO SIGCD 503 [56’30”]

These are not new performances, as is evident from the recording dates above. They were originally issued on the United label (catalogue number 88033) and their reappearance is most welcome. I have heard a number of the Vasari Singers’ previous CDs and have always been mightily impressed but I had not come across this one before.

The works here recorded are, I think, among the very finest a capella pieces of sacred music from the twentieth century. Indeed, I’d go further and suggest that they are rivalled in quality and inspiration only by Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G Minor. The Howells Requiem and Martin’s setting of the Mass have much in common and so their coupling on this CD (unique, I think) is a very intelligent piece of programming. Both share fastidious craftsmanship and a total command of choral writing. However, there’s more to it than that. Both compositions are intensely personal and for this reason both were withheld by their respective composers for many years.

In a splendid liner-note Jeremy Backhouse reminds us that though Howells completed his Requiem in 1935, the year of the tragic death of his son, Michael, the work was not necessarily a direct response to that event. In fact composition had begun as early as 1932. However, the loss of Michael was probably the reason that Howells kept the work private for so many years. The piece has many links to the much larger Hymnus Paradisi, Howells’ supreme masterpiece, which was similarly withheld for a long time. Howells eventually acceded to the entreaties of Vaughan Williams and others and allowed Hymnus to be performed at the 1950 Three Choirs Festival. However the Requiem was kept from public gaze for another thirty years or so.

There are many links, textual and musical, between Requiem and Hymnus Paradisi. These links are especially pronounced in the third, fourth and sixth movements. But the work is much more than a sketch for Hymnus. Much of its music was not incorporated into the larger work and it is a completely independent, freestanding work in its own right.

I find Requiem (and Hymnus Paradisi also, for that matter) a deeply moving, eloquent composition of surpassing beauty. Its textures are less rich and complex than is the case with Hymnus Paradisi but, of course, that just enhances the intimacy of Requiem. Howells’ choice of texts and the great sensitivity with which he sets them, always a hallmark of his vocal music, makes this above all a Requiem of consolation. When it is sung as well as is the case here it is pure balm for the soul. In particular I defy anyone to hear the Vasari Singers’ account of the last of the sixth movements, ‘I heard a voice from heaven’, and not be moved (track 6, 3’18” to end).

Frank Martin’s Mass is an equally private composition. The first four movements (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo and Sanctus) were written in 1922. The concluding Agnus Dei was added four years later. Even then Martin kept the work to himself and only released it for a first performance in 1963. The notes quote his comment that “this [the Mass] was something between God and me, that concerned nobody else.”

The work is laid out for two four-part mixed choirs and this recording separates the twin choirs nicely and naturally. (track 11, 2’00” to 3’01”). Martin’s music makes great demands on the singers but Backhouse’s choir rises to every challenge. There are many original touches such as the unconventional start of the Gloria. Here the praise is hushed and awestruck, perhaps highly suggestive of the composer’s own humility. Later in this movement there are heartfelt prayers at ‘Domine Deus, Agnus Dei’ before the movement comes to a dancing conclusion. It’s also remarkable how restrained yet radiant is the Sanctus – perhaps another expression of awe before the Deity? – before an exultant ‘Hosanna’. The intense Agnus Dei rises from quiet beginnings to an impassioned plea, ‘Miserere nobis’. Eventually the words ‘Dona nobis pacem’ bring a heartfelt, humble and trusting conclusion.

This is a subtle masterpiece that demands careful listening. The very high quality performance on this disc demands the attention of the listener just as surely as does the quality of the music.

Howells’ motet, Take him, earth, for cherishing differs from the other works on the CD in that it was written for a very public occasion, namely a memorial service for the assassinated US President, John F. Kennedy. But this work too has links with Hymnus Paradisi. Howells went back to an unused draft for that work. He did not use the music he had composed but he took the words and made a brand new setting of them. It is hard to think of words that would have been more in tune with the international sense of loss at the time. Howells’ masterly setting conveys a timeless sense of dignity in loss. The performance here is a very fine one (track 7, 5’46” to 7’13”)

There are some excellent performances of these particular works elsewhere. For example, the two Howells pieces are on a very fine CD by the Corydon Singers (Hyperion), a long-standing favourite of mine. It is the recording by which I got to know the Requiem. Also on Hyperion is a superb, award-winning performance of the Martin Mass by the Westminster Cathedral Choir (which has the benefit of boy trebles with their extra cutting edge). However, this Signum release has the convenience of the coupling and the Vasari Singers need fear no comparisons with the rivals I’ve just mentioned.

The entire CD is filled with exquisite music, superbly performed and presented in excellent sound that is clear and atmospheric. With first rate notes and texts and translations included (English only) this is a most attractive proposition that I recommend with the highest possible enthusiasm.

John Quinn

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