The Naxos label has issued a stream of fine
releases of British
over the last few years and here
they put collectors further in their debt with
a coupling of two of Vaughan Williams’ choral masterpieces. Amazingly
- and scandalously - neither is performed very often and so most music-lovers
need high quality recordings to fill the gap.
The almost total absence from the concert hall of Dona Nobis Pacem
to baffle me. I’ve sung in a couple of performances, which were thrilling
and moving experiences but I see that the last of those performances was seventeen
years ago! As I wrote, when reviewing
composer’s own 1936 recording, “Dona Nobis Pacem
is in many
ways a work of its time but, in the sentiments that it expresses, it’s
surely a work for our times also. It’s sincere and impassioned and a
very fine piece.” Happily, it’s fared well on record. Besides the
composer’s own superb account there have been recordings by Maurice Abravanel
which I have not heard, by Bryden Thomson (Chandos CHAN8590) (review
by Matthew Best (review
by Robert Shaw (review
and by Sir Adrian Boult (review
The most direct competition, however, comes from a very fine 1992 account from
Richard Hickox, which has the same coupling as this present disc (EMI 7 54788
The Hickox version is excellent, with tremendously committed playing and
singing from the LSO and its chorus and a marvellously vivid recording. It
the very considerable presence of Bryn Terfel. In those days Terfel’s
singing was mercifully free from the over-emphasis to which I find he has sometimes
succumbed in recent years and for Hickox he offers unaffected presentation
and superb tone. Matthew Brook, though a capable soloist, can’t quite
compete with this. I thought it sounded as if he took some time to settle:
in his very first solo, in the beautiful third section, ‘Reconciliation’,
his top Es sound a little effortful - perhaps the result of trying a little
too hard for expression? He’s better a little further on in the movement,
offering suitably withdrawn singing in the passage “For my enemy is dead”,
which he does with feeling. He’s heard to best advantage at the start
of the last section - “O man greatly beloved”. But overall Terfel
offers a more compelling experience.
The other soloist is the soprano Christina Pier, who I’d not heard
before. She makes an excellent impression. At the very start of the work
appropriately vulnerable but a few moments later her fortissimo
A flats are thrillingly impassioned. She has limited opportunities in the work
but she takes all of them very well, whether singing at full tilt or quietly
and her singing at the hushed close of the work is lovely.
The main burden of the musical argument is carried by the chorus and orchestra
and we find both The Bach Choir and the Bournemouth orchestra on fine form.
The second section, ‘Beat! beat! drums”, is a frenetic movement,
a setting of Whitman. Marked by frequently thundering percussion and brazen
brass fanfares, it’s a tour de force
. The choir’s
singing is splendidly incisive. They have a lot of words to articulate but
they do so with clarity and rhythmic accuracy. David Hill sets a brisk, exciting
pace but the music is always under control. The following movement, ‘Reconciliation’,
another Whitman setting, offers balm after the preceding furore. At first I
wondered if Hill’s tempo was just a touch too flowing but soon I realised
that he probably had his eye on the baritone solo section, ‘For my enemy
is dead’. Vaughan Williams marks no tempo change at that point but the
nature of the writing is such that if the opening music has been taken too
steadily the solo section may become becalmed. Hill avoids this trap with ease
and his reading of this whole movement is very convincing.
He’s just as successful in the great ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’ that
follows. Here an imposing march is interleaved with wonderful lyrical episodes.
Hill’s pacing of this movement is less expansive than Hickox’s
- it’s one reason why his overall reading is some five minutes shorter
than Hickox’s 38:47. Incidentally, Hill’s overall timing is pretty
close to the composer’s 34:32 and the respective timings of the individual
movements are also closely aligned. Hill builds the Dirge patiently and powerfully
and the several towering climaxes are thrust home magnificently. The contrasting
soft moonlit episodes are beautifully realised. Rightly, Hill makes this potent
movement the musical and emotional centre of the work. The final movement,
which in many ways anticipates the comparable celebratory movement in Hodie
is brought off expertly and crowns an extremely successful traversal of this
The neglect of Dona Nobis Pacem
in terms of live performances is as
nothing compared to the seeming indifference to Sancta Civitas
I can never recall a live performance of it and I know it only through recordings.
So far as I know there have only been two previous recordings of the piece:
the 1968 recording by Sir David Willcocks (review
with which I first became acquainted with the piece on LP, and the Hickox version.
Perhaps the neglect is explained by the extravagant forces required for a work
that lasts only just over half an hour. As well as a baritone soloist and a
tenor - who gets only a few bars to sing at the very end - the piece calls
for a large orchestra. a main chorus, a semi chorus and
a distant chorus
- here expertly provided by the young singers of Winchester Cathedral.
The piece, which was written between 1923 and 1925, represents RVW at his
most visionary. The text was assembled by the composer himself from biblical
mainly the Book of Revelation. It won’t surprise listeners that the piece
was followed a couple of years later by that great masterpiece, Job. A Masque
. There are many stylistic cross-references, especially in the
orchestral writing, and the seraphic violin solo in the section ‘And
I saw a new heaven’ uncannily anticipates ‘Elihu’s dance
of youth and beauty’ in Job
. It’s good to have The Bach
Choir performing here, for an earlier generation of The Bach Choir gave the
work its second performance, in 1926 under the composer’s direction.
The Bach Choir also took part in the Willcocks recording and, of course, RVW
and Sir David are among David Hill’s predecessors as Conductors of this
The present performance is magnificent. In particular David Hill and the
engineers between them balance RVW’s often-complex many-layered textures expertly.
Though a number of passages are heavily scored the performance is full of clarity.
Matthew Brook sings well - I find he’s more consistent than was the case
in Dona Nobis Pacem
and I wonder which work was recorded first.
The tenor soloist has only a short passage to sing - ‘Behold, I come
quickly’ - towards the end but it’s a hugely important solo at
a key point in the score. Andrew Staples sings very well; his tone is clear
and plangent though, for me, Ian Partridge’s unique timbre on the Willcocks
recording is unforgettable.
The choir and orchestra excel in this work also and they do full justice
to the visionary words - and to RVW’s visionary music. It’s a pity
that Naxos don’t provide the text other than through their website, which
isn’t convenient to all, for though the choir’s diction is admirable
there are a lot of words and it’s pretty important to be able to follow
them. I had the advantage of the text ready to hand but others may not have
that luxury. David Hill’s conducting is absolutely assured and convincing;
in short, he’s a thoroughly reliable guide to this complex score
The recorded sound is excellent for both works. It’s not, perhaps, quite
as full-blooded as the EMI sound for Hickox but the EMI recording is a bit
closer and many will prefer the slight degree of distance and concert hall
perspective that Naxos offer without any lack of immediacy. Soft passages are
truthfully reported while the many huge climaxes are thrillingly captured.
Andrew Burn’s notes are usually pretty good for Naxos: this set is one
of his very best.
These are two English choral works of great stature and this CD contains
performances that are fully worthy of the music. I wouldn’t wish to be without the
Hickox readings, not least for the imposing presence of Bryn Terfel, but at
the Naxos price collectors who already own the Hickox disc can afford duplication
and enjoy these very fine performances as well. For newcomers to these glorious
works I can only urge you to invest confidently in David Hill’s interpretations:
I’m sure you’ll be bowled over by Vaughan Williams’s magnificent