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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872–1958)
Mass in G minor (1922) [24:00]
Te Deum in G (1928) [7:15]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892–1983)

Requiem (1936) [20.03]
Take him, earth, for cherishing (1964) [8:55]
Corydon Singers/Matthew Best
rec. 7, 9, 14 and 15 February 1983, Church of St Alban, Holborn, London. DDD
Re-issue of CDA 66076
Experience Classicsonline

Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, John Taverner, Orlando Gibbons, Henry Purcell, William Mundy and John Sheppard. These are just a few names from a period in English music – long before that marvellous, and totally spurious, comment from the 1920s was coined that England was "ein Land ohne Musik" – where choral music reigned supreme and polyphony, secular and sacred, was brought to new heights. After this great flowering: silence. Well, that’s not quite true, we mustn’t forget the myriad glees, madrigals, partsongs and lesser - it must be said - church music. And I must admit to having a soft spot for the choral works of Pearsall and the partsongs of George Macfarren and Lisa Lehmann. However there’s nothing of the stature of Spem in Alium, When David Heard that Absalom was Dead or, on a simpler level, When Vesta was from Latmos Hill Descending or Thule, the Period of Cosmography.

In Carol Reed’s film The Third Man, Orson Welles attributes Switzerland’s world fame to the cuckoo clock. To many, England’s claim to choral music fame in the 19th century is Stainer’s Crucifixion. With all due respect to Stainer, and all the other composers beavering away at choral music in this country at that time, and up to the First World War, nothing could have prepared the public for the incredibly intense and unique choral experience which was Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Mass in G minor.

As conductor of the Bach Choir, and joint editor of The English Hymnal (1906), VW knew his renaissance and baroque choral music. When he turned to writing his own Mass, for unaccompanied voices, it was to be expected that he would absorb all that he knew and, mixed with his own distinctive style, produce a work to match the stature of Spem in Alium. And match it he did!

Here is VW, a mere 12 years after the première of the Tallis Fantasia, and with three symphonies under his belt, firmly at home in the middle of the English choral music renaissance. Laid out magnificently for double, antiphonal, choir, with four soloists, the Mass shares some of the block chordal writing of the Pastoral Symphony, with which it is contemporary. There is more than a nod towards his beloved folksongs but there is no direct use of the vernacular here.

VW knew exactly what he could get from his singers and he created a work which is expertly written for voices, rich in texture, full of tunes, a sheer joy to listen to, and, I know from personal experience, to perform.

The five movements are concise but what an experience is crammed into such a small space. The antiphonal effects are thrilling and the small solo contributions are very powerful. And he creates a perfect QED when the music of the opening Kyrie returns in the final Agnus Dei.

It was hearing the première of Tallis Fantasia in Gloucester Cathedral in 1910 that convinced Howells to embark on his career as composer. For this we should be grateful. Howells’s Requiem is one of two works - the other being the glorious Hymnus Paradisi - which he wrote as a private memorial on the death of his only son, Michael, from spinal meningitis, in 1935. Because of their very personal nature Hymnus Paradisi wasn’t performed for twelve years after completion and the Requiem had to wait nearly 45 years before seeing the light of day in performance. Setting words from the Psalms and the Requiem Mass, this is a deeply serious work, sharing material with Hymnus Paradisi, slow moving, thoughtful and very beautiful. The part-writing is superb, the textures are full, but never too thick, everything is clear and well thought out.

There is no doubt in my mind that here are two of the most important 20th century works for unaccompanied voices by English composers. Both composers, Howells, especially, were always happy when writing for voices and these works, although both from relatively early in their respective composer’s careers, show this love of the voice.

The two fill-up pieces are equally interesting.

Howells wrote his exquisite setting of Helen Waddell’s translation of Prudentius’s Hymnus circa Exsquias Defuncti for a commemoration of President Kennedy after his assassination in 1963 (not 1961 as the notes tell us). Like the Requiem, it is a fertile work, full of the Howells we know and love, and very deeply felt. The music is bold and dramatic, startling and arresting, making this one of Howells’s richest and most fascinating smaller choral works. It is a perfect lesson in how to set words without losing sight of their meaning and allowing the composition to become more important than the message.

VW’s Te Deum was written for the enthronement of Dr C G Lang as Archbishop of Canterbury. As befits the occasion this is a celebratory work and it comes as a shock after the perfect silence which follows the Mass. But it is a pleasant makeweight for VW and does bring about the sole lightness in a disc of very serious, but very beautiful, music, deriving from the Tudors, the Elizabethans, and that whole period of pure choral polyphony. What a legacy VW and Howells had to draw on. They bring the English choral tradition into line in the modern world with their illustrious predecessors.

Matthew Best’s Corydon Singers give of their all, and the small solos are potent in their simplicity – here is fine solo singing. This is a magnificent disc of great music by English composers. This isn’t just a disc for lovers of English music, or choral music, this is a disc which should be in every collection for the sheer excellence of the music-making and the stature of the music. Superb recording, and, with the exception of the slip mentioned above, very good notes.

Bob Briggs



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