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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

I have been listening to a lot of Vaughan Williams' music in recent months and not just because of the 50th anniversary of his death. After several years, recently, listening more to jazz and folk - and even more so to hybrids of the two such as Robin Williamson's ECM discs - I have returned increasingly to British notated music of the first half of twentieth century. This was sparked initially by the psycho-geographical connections of, in particular,
Moeran, Ireland and Warlock. In the 2007 review issue of The Wire, Rob Young described this trio as "fantastically underrated ... steeped in arcane folklore, antiquarianism and homespun modernism". I'm not sure why Bax didn't also figure with him!. This movement is now very much in keeping with the current "hauntological" zeitgeist. Do have a look at this connection and follow the link for a brief introduction. The stories of Arthur Machen and M.R. James can offer a perspective on where John Ireland and his close contemporaries were coming from in their more psychological works. This interest in turn led me back, via the Hardy and Housman-informed fatalistic quietisms of Finzi and Gurney, to Vaughan Williams himself. 

The main work on the present disc – the Mass in G minor - is beautifully realised by the chamber choir Laudibus, under Mike Brewer. It is not one of the most well represented of Vaughan Williams' works in the current catalogue. Two versions spring to mind: by the Corydon Singers under Matthew Best on Hyperion (until very recently full price but now on Helios) and the Elora Festival Singers (from Canada) on Naxos. The former is, unsurprisingly, the superior recording of the two but the latter, though underpowered is still worth hearing as a comparison. However, top-notch performance of the Mass aside, this Laudibus issue also has considerable "value added" in terms of several rare and unusual couplings - maybe even more so than the Corydon's Howells pieces. OK, so we have the quite familiar "Greensleeves" and "Ca' the Yowes". However the other pieces range from the very early "Three Elizabethan Part Songs" written in the composer's late twenties to "Silence and Music" - simultaneously resigned and valedictory, at least to these ears. This latter is to texts by his second wife Ursula and was premiered in 1953, just five years before his death. The "theme" to the disc, if indeed there is one, is Vaughan Williams' juxtaposition of the sacred and the secular and influences Elizabethan and folk-based. This represents almost a microcosm of his life's work, if you will - although some of the recent tributes have quite rightly scorned the two-dimensional "pastoral" stereotype beloved of his critics. 

The disc begins with "The Souls of the Righteous", revisiting The Song of Solomon, two decades after "Flos Campi". There is also the near contemporaneous "Prayer to the Father of Heaven" (1948). This is to words by John Skelton, here in serious, not "Tudor Portraits" mode. The latter and "O vos omnes" are common to this Delphian disc and the Naxos Elora offering. Shakespeare is represented by the dark(ish) "Three Shakespeare Songs" and two of the aforementioned and much gentler "Elizabethan Part Songs". The programme is completed by the brief but affecting "Love is a Sickness" from 1913 and "Heart's Music" (set to Thomas Campion) from near to the end of the composer's life. 

Much of the music on the disc could be described as aural balm. This is a product of both composer and artists. On the other hand to those who have a wide appreciation of his works, Vaughan Williams was someone who knew that, as the Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo said, "What has no shadow has no strength to live". If we listen solely to the more beatific aspects of his oeuvre we are doing both him and ourselves a disservice. We need the Fifth Symphony and the Piano Concerto, the Fourth Symphony and The Lark Ascending. All credit then to Mike Brewer and his choir for the varied selection on offer here. These truly superlative performances and recordings provide a fine and representative blending of the ascetic and mellifluous aspects of an essential composer's legacy to the English choral tradition. Another winner from Delphian!

Neil Horner 

see also Review by John Quinn



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