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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
The Souls of the Righteous (1947) [2:41]
Greensleeves [3:09]
Three Shakespeare Songs (1951) [6:06]
Prayer to the Father of Heaven (1948) [4:16]
Mass in G minor (1922) [21:50]
O vos omnes (1922) [4:48]
Ca’ the Yowes (1922) [4:58]
Love is a sickness (1913) [1:34]
Three Elizabethan Part Songs (1899) [5:51]
Silence and Music (1953) [5:20]
Heart’s Music (1954) [3:02]
Laudibus/Mike Brewer
rec. 19-20 January 2008, All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London. DDD
Texts and English translations included
DELPHIAN DCD34074 [64:00]
Experience Classicsonline

Not long ago I reviewed very enthusiastically a CD of choral music by a wide variety of composers performed by Laudibus and Mike Brewer. Now they give us a disc devoted solely to the music of Vaughan Williams, the fiftieth anniversary of whose death is being marked this year.

Let’s not beat about the bush. This disc is a corker! The choir that Mike Brewer uses here is somewhat smaller than was the case on the previous disc five sopranos and four each of altos, tenors and basses. Writing of their previous recital I referred to "the assurance and collective virtuosity of Laudibus" and I went on to comment that "as well as the technical excellence of the singing a palpable sense of commitment and enthusiasm comes across." Every word of that verdict is supported by this new release.

The Mass in G minor stands, together with the ‘Tallis’ Fantasia, as RVW’s great tribute to the Tudor music he so much admired. Written for liturgical use – though its first performance was as a concert work – it drew from the composer some magnificent music and wonderful choral sonorities. The Mass has received a number of fine recordings over the years but this present account is up there with the best of them. The scoring is for double choir and SATB soloists. With just seventeen singers in the choir Laudibus may seem numerically light and it’s interesting to note, for example, that on their 1991 recording the Holst Singers comprised thirty-nine voices (see review). But a church or cathedral choir singing the piece might field similar numbers to Laudibus in the lower three voices and though a cathedral choir would certainly have a good number of trebles the purity, accuracy and sheer quality of sound that the Laudibus sopranos produce more than compensates for any shortage of numbers.

The relatively small size of the choir – and the superb recorded sound – pays dividends, I find, in terms of textural clarity. I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so aware before of the way in which RVW uses the two choirs and the soloists to vary the textures, just as he does in the ‘Tallis’ Fantasia. This clarity is achieved without recourse to any unnatural closeness in the microphone setting. Indeed, here and throughout the recital the resonant acoustic of All Hallows Church is caught most beautifully and it is used, as it should be, to enhance the music. I’ve referred to the relatively small choir that’s used. However, there’s no lack of punch and zest in exuberant passages, such as "Laudamus te" in the Gloria. But in the same movement the precision and the weighting of the quiet chords at "Et in terra pax" is just as impressive. The control in the section of the Credo beginning "Et incarnatus" is quite outstanding – hear "passus et sepultus est". Laudibus provides a fine solo quartet, especially the ethereally pure soprano Anne Marie Cullum, and their work in the Credo and elsewhere consistently gives pleasure.

Mike Brewer clearly has a very fine feel indeed for this work and he’s communicated that to his singers who respond with freshness and commitment. The reading has urgency even when the music is reflective – by that I don’t mean that the music is pushed too hard at all but one always has a welcome sense of forward movement. There’s only one point when I’m slightly uncomfortable with Brewer’s approach. At the start of the Agnus Dei every note is separately articulated and the result sounds just a little jerky. I can’t recall hearing it done this way before and certainly a more "traditional", smoother approach is taken by the Elora Festival Singers (see review), by the Holst Singers, and on the superb version by the Corydon Singers (Hyperion CDA66076). This is a relatively minor point, however, and it certainly doesn’t detract from the overall impression that this is a very fine recording indeed of the Mass.

The rest of the programme is equally fine and judiciously mixes the familiar and the less well known. The masterly Three Shakespeare Songs are justly renowned. Laudibus turn in a wonderful performance. There’s lightness and delicacy in ‘Full Fathom Five’ and a real sense of mystery is imparted at the start. Here RVW’s evocative and strange harmonies come across beautifully but later on, at "Hark now I hear them", Brewer makes the music really vivid and exciting. The grave beauty of ‘The Cloud-Capp’d Towers’ is captured superbly – what a rapt setting this is! - and all in all this performance of the Songs is of similar quality to that of the Mass.

The Three Elizabethan Part Songs are among the composer’s earliest works and I can’t recall hearing them before. Unsurprisingly they don’t have the blazing originality of some of the other works in the programme but they’re well worth hearing, especially when they’re done as well as is the case here. At the other end of the chronological spectrum RVW’s mastery is everywhere apparent in the later works, The Souls of the Righteous, Silence and Music and the particularly impressive Prayer to the Father of Heaven. The haunting setting of Ca’ the Yowes is sensitively done and if the uncredited tenor soloist can’t quite match the plangent fluency of Ian Partridge (see review and also on EMI 50999 2 16155 2) he still sings very well. (The uncredited tenor has since been confirmed as Ben Thapa of G4 renown.)

This is an extremely impressive disc, with a marvellous account of the Mass in G minor at its heart. For me, the Corydon Singers still set the benchmark for this work but Laudibus run them very close indeed and in terms of clarity of texture they even surpass them in some respects. I strongly suspect that the Corydon Singers is a bigger choir comprising professional singers. Choice may be dictated by coupling and the Corydon’s recording is coupled with the glorious Requiem by Howells. If you want an all-Vaughan Williams disc, however, this Laudibus offering will take some beating. The contents of the programme have been chosen shrewdly and the execution is flawless, confirming the impression from their earlier CD that Laudibus is a choir to be reckoned with. The documentation is excellent and a special word of praise must go to producer Paul Baxter and engineer Beth Mackay who have captured these exquisite performances in sound of luminous clarity and great presence. This CD is an outstanding celebration of RVW in this anniversary year

John Quinn


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