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
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.