I cannot rate this CD too highly. From every possible angle it
is an essential purchase for anyone who claims an interest in
British music. Firstly, the singing is superb. Even allowing for
my preference for an all-male choir such as Kings’ College Cambridge,
in any performance of the Mass in G minor, I cannot fault
this version in any way. Secondly the repertoire is brilliantly
chosen. Laudibus have selected some exceptionally well known pieces
– Ca’ the Yowes, Greensleeves and the Mass and
have complemented them with works that are virtually discoveries
– at least to me.
is easy to fall into the trap of regarding Vaughan Williams
as a ‘pastoral’ composer or perhaps someone whose music is derived
solely from folk-song. These generalisations do however have
some grounding in fact. One only needs to think of the interminable
repetitions of the Lark Ascending, Greensleeves
and the Folksong Suite on Classic FM. Yet this is not
the whole truth. Even a cursory hearing of a cross-section of
RVW’s music reveals a wide range of influences – folksong, yes,
but also Tudor music, the impressionism of Wenlock Edge,
the neo-classicism of the Concerto Accademico and perhaps
the biting, almost Stravinskian, dissonances of the Fourth
Symphony. The present CD explores a few of these trajectories,
in a well-balanced programme.
is represented by the ubiquitous Greensleeves. This tune
has been arranged for virtually every combination of instruments
and voices. RVW originally used this tune as part of the incidental
music for a performance of Richard II. Everyone knows
the Fantasia, but I guess fewer listeners will be familiar
with the a cappella setting. For me it makes pristine
again a fine tune and allows the accretions of decades of popularity
to be discarded. Beautiful! Ca’ the Yowes has a Scottish
pedigree, deriving from Robert Burns’s ‘Hark! The Mavis’. The
tune is traditional and makes use of a soloist to sing the verse.
It is so simple, yet achieves perfection.
early part of the twentieth century was a time of re-discovery
of many of the treasures of English music especially from the
Tudor and Elizabethan ages. It was when William Byrd, Thomas
Morley and Thomas Tallis were heard in both liturgical and,
for virtually the first time in centuries, in secular venues.
Two names dominate – Richard R Terry at Westminster Cathedral
and E.H Fellowes. These men are central to the revival of interest
in this music in its own right and also for the influence that
this music exerted on many composers including Vaughan Williams.
Three Elizabethan Songs are early works. They were composed
around 1899 but were not heard until fourteen years later. They
are fine examples of choral word-setting, which may lack some
of the subtlety of the composer’s later work, but surely represent
a sensitive response to both text and the English Madrigal School.
Another work in this genre is Love is a sickness: it
is described by the composer as a ‘Ballett for Four Voices’.
This is in some ways a parody of Elizabethan music, but is also
Mass in G minor is a masterpiece. It has been criticised
for being ‘too churchy’ – however it is a liturgical
work and has been used as such on a number of occasions. The
bottom line is that this work is not a pastiche of what may
have been heard in a cathedral during the reign of Queen Elizabeth.
It is a brilliant recreation of that sound seen through the
eyes and ears of a composer who had absorbed and synthesised
a number of styles and genres of music. It is a work that acts
as a bridge between Tudor music and the first quarter of the
is a long way from the Madrigal School or the choir of a Tudor
cathedral to the sound-world of Silence and Music. This
piece was composed as part of A Garland for the Queen,
which was written in honour of Queen Elizabeth II. Ten composers
and ten poets were asked to contribute words and music as a
gift designed to imitate the Triumph of Oriana, which
had been dedicated to Elizabeth I. Silence and Music
is a strange piece of slipping and sliding harmonies that struggles
to establish a tonal centre. Yet there is a beauty about this
piece that derives from its apparent simplicity.
three motets on this CD are relatively rarely performed or recorded.
They are late works having been composed between 1947 and 1954.
The Souls of the Righteous is a setting of words from
the ‘Song of Solomon’. The Prayer to the Father in Heaven
is to a poem by John Skelton and Hearts Music has a text
by Thomas Campion. All three works have definite RVW fingerprints.
Yet perhaps they demand more from the listener than the earlier
pieces: there is an ambiguity about their style and harmony
that does not quite fit into the folksong/Tudor music paradigm.
final works need to be mentioned - although I can find no reference
to them in the programme notes! - and these are O Vos omnes
from 1922 and the Three Shakespeare Songs written in
1951. The latter is quite difficult to sing and is complex.
Yet the effect is good. There is an air of mystery over these
pieces that is surely appropriate for any setting of ‘The Cloud
Capp’d Towers’. I feel that this is one the finest and most
enjoyable example of Vaughan Williams’ a cappella music
and I am surprised that they are not better known and more often
performed. However I do note that there are some ten CDs of
this music currently available. O Vos Omnes was written
shortly before work began on the Mass in G minor. This
is a desolate and disturbing piece that well suits the text
– ‘Is it nothing to you who pass by? Look and see if there is
any sorrow like my sorrow?’
is little else to be said about this CD that I did not state in
the opening paragraph. The programme notes are great - the above-noted
omissions, excepted - and the singing is fantastic. It is a fine
introduction to RVW’s choral music and is essential to all who
are already smitten.
see also Review
by John Quinn August RECORDING OF