Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Dona Nobis Pacem* (1936) [33:29]
Sancta Civitas** (1925) [31:10]
*Christina Pier (soprano); **Andrew Staples (tenor); Matthew Brook (baritone); The Bach Choir; **Winchester Cathedral Choristers; **Winchester Cathedral Quiristers; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/David Hill
rec. 26-27 September 2009, Concert Hall, The Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset, UK. DDD
NAXOS 8.572424 [64:39]

The Naxos label has issued a stream of fine releases of British music 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 continues 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 the 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 (review; review), 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 2).

The Hickox version is excellent, with tremendously committed playing and singing from the LSO and its chorus and a marvellously vivid recording. It also has 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 He’s better a little further on in the movement, offering suitably withdrawn singing in the passage “For my enemy is dead”, which he does with feeling.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 she sounds appropriately vulnerable but a few moments later her fortissimo top 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 (1958) is brought off expertly and crowns an extremely successful traversal of this eloquent cantata.

The neglect of Dona Nobis Pacem in terms of live performances is as nothing compared to the seeming indifference to Sancta Civitas: indeed, 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 sources, 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 for Dancing. 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 choir.

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 scores.

John Quinn

Two English choral works of great stature in fine new recordings ... see Full Review