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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
A Cappella choral works
The Souls of the Righteous (1947) [2:41]
Greensleeves (1913?) [3:08]
Three Shakespeare Songs (Full Fathom Five; The Cloud-Capp'd Towers; Over Hill, Over Dale) (1951) [6:16]
Prayer to the Father of Heaven (1948) [4:16] Mass in G minor (1922) [21:50]
O vos omnes (1922) [4:58]
Ca' the Yowes (1922) [4:58]
Love is a Sickness (1913) [1:34] Three Elizabethan Part Songs (Sweet Day; The Willow Song; O mistress mine) (c.1899) [5:49]
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. DELPHIAN DCD34074 [64:00]

 

Experience Classicsonline


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.

 

It 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.

 

Folksong 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.

 

The 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.

 

The 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 recognisably RVW.

 

The 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 Twentieth Century.

 

It 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.

 

The 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.

 

Two 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?’

 

There 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.

 

John France

 

see also Review by John Quinn August RECORDING OF THE MONTH

 

 





 


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