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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Te Deum in G [7:12]
Mass in G minor [23:10]
O vos omnes [5:51]
Valiant-for-Truth [5:57]
A vision of aeroplanes [10:06]
Judith BINGHAM (b. 1952)

Mass [26:50]
The Choir of Westminster Cathedral/Martin Baker (Master of Music)
Robert Quinney (organ)
rec. Westminster Cathedral, 5-8 July 2004 DDD
HYPERION CDA67503 [79:45]

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Within a couple of days of receiving my review copy of this disc, news reached me that Hyperion had lost the case of breach of copyright brought against them by Dr Lionel Sawkins. The issues behind the case have been well documented elsewhere and I do not intend to discuss them further here. I will simply say that whatever your stance on the rights and wrongs of the matter, Hyperion is a label that has brought us much to be thankful for over a good number of years now. With costs reputed to be around one million pounds there is bound to be some degree of impact on future recording plans but let us hope that the Hyperion team can recover sufficiently to carry on their sterling work.

If an example were needed of Hyperionís services to British music in particular, here is a classic case in point. Despite being one of our most performed contemporary composers both in the concert hall and on radio, Judith Binghamís discography to date is scandalously slim. Only a handful of generally smaller works have so far made it onto disc. None of her major works, including those for choir for which she is probably best known, have been committed to CD whilst no single disc has been produced dedicated entirely to her music. Happily this latter point is about to be put right. A recording scheduled to appear on the Naxos label is already in the can and is to include several major works for choir, organ and brass including her 2004 Proms commission The Secret Garden (in the live RAH recording of the premiere by Thomas Trotter and the BBC Singers), Salt in the Blood, an earlier Proms commission and Ancient Sunlight, written for Thomas Trotter following the completion of the long awaited organ at Symphony Hall, Birmingham.

In the meantime Hyperion have succeeded in plugging the gap with this premiere recording of Binghamís Mass, written for Westminster Cathedral as a celebration of Ascension Day in 2003. Bingham chooses to deviate from the conventional in creating what amounts to a narrative journey with settings of the Kyrie, Gloria, Offertory, Sanctus and Benedictus and Agnus Dei framed by two substantial organ pieces, a Preamble entitled The road to Emmaeus and a Voluntary, Et cognoverunt eum. The result is both impressive and effective, the organ Preamble paving the thematic way and lending the work a satisfying architectural cogency.

The language, whilst melodically and harmonically approachable, can be uncompromisingly austere in true Bingham fashion with a dark beauty rarely straying far from the surface of the music yet punctuated by occasional passages of repose as demonstrated in the beautiful central section of the Gloria. The Preamble opens in hushed mystery to reveal the disciples trudging in dejection with Christ absent from their midst. The music rises to a moment of "stunned recognition" before subsiding once again to an atmospheric conclusion, proof that Bingham writes every bit as well for organ as she does for choir. The shifting, unsettled Kyrie (anyone familiar with the composerís Advent hymn The Clouded Heaven will feel instantly at home here) leads into a powerful proclamation of the Gloria before the Offertory, Et aperti sunt oculi, which like the organ Preamble and Voluntary draws on St. Lukeís Gospel for its narrative thread. Both the brief Sanctus and Benedictus and Agnus Dei depart to a sound world steeped in plainsong, with a touching simplicity in notable contrast to the earlier music whilst the final Voluntary culminates in a bold celebration of the Ascension, the music growing inexorably to an emphatic final chord.

To my ears Binghamís music has always sounded unmistakably English, an indication perhaps of why it appears to sit so well here alongside Vaughan Williams. Yet in contrast to the Bingham, in Vaughan Williamsí Mass in G Minor the Choir of Westminster Cathedral enters a positive minefield of competition. The same gutsy, full blooded singing that they bring to Binghamís Mass is also demonstrated in the Vaughan Williams Mass setting and whilst I would not place Martin Bakerís Westminster forces at the very forefront of the finest available recordings of the work they acquit themselves with an enthusiasm that is both infectious and enjoyable. The joyous Te Deum in G that opens the disc is magnificently sung with a fine sense of the spaces and acoustic resonances of Westminster Cathedral. Those same resonances also pay dividends in the contrasting, ethereal calm of O vos omnes, a truly haunting setting that Vaughan Williams conceived with those very acoustics in mind when he wrote it for Westminster Cathedral in 1922. Equally striking, albeit for different reasons, is A vision of aeroplanes, the extraordinary setting of the prophet Ezekiel that Vaughan Williams wrote within the last two years of his life in 1956. As in the epic and underrated Ninth Symphony, this work is ample evidence that even in his eighties the composerís mind was still probing and pushing his own musical boundaries. Once again both choir and organist Robert Quinney give an account of unwavering commitment.

Christopher Thomas


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