Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Mass in G minor (1921) [22:35]
A Vision of Aeroplanes (1956) [9:31]
The Voice out of the Whirlwind (1947) [5:23]
Valiant-for-Truth (1940) [5:32]
Three Choral Hymns (1929) [12:55]
Nothing is here for tears (1936) [2:14]
The Souls of the Righteous (1947) [3:19]
A Choral Flourish (1956) [1:42]
James McVinnie and Ashok Gupta (organ)
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge/Timothy Brown
rec. Chapel of St. John’s College, Cambridge, UK, 16 July 2009 and Chapel of Jesus College, Cambridge, UK, 17 July 2009. DDD
NAXOS 8.572465 [63:11]

Apart from the superb singing and playing to be heard on this disc, one of its main attractions for Vaughan Williams enthusiasts will be a programme featuring several lesser-known works. Indeed, thanks to this disc, two pieces make their first appearance in my supposedly comprehensive Vaughan Williams collection. Nothing is here for tears, a unison song to a text from Milton, was written following the death of George V. Its melody is pure Vaughan Williams, and once heard will haunt most devotees of the composer for the rest of the day. A Choral Flourish, on the other hand, is a brief and brilliant setting in Latin of the final verse of Psalm 32. It is unaccompanied apart from a tiny, clarion-like introduction.

The Voice out of the Whirlwind, wherein the composer adapted the “Galliard of the Sons of the Morning” from Job to fit a challenging text from the Book of Job, is given here in its original version for choir and organ. Most of the organ-accompanied works on this disc exist also in orchestral versions, and listeners interested in the orchestral arrangement of this work, which Vaughan Williams prepared for the Leith Hill Musical Festival, can hear it on the superb Naxos companion disc featuring the first recording of Willow-Wood. You will be able to follow the words on that disc too, though not with the present performance as, sadly, none of the texts is provided: purchasers are directed to the Naxos website instead. The Souls of the Righteous is one of the composer’s less well-known unaccompanied motets, but a most beautiful one. The excellent soloists are named in the booklet.

Any lover of Vaughan Williams’ music – especially if he or she is also an amateur choral conductor – will probably quibble at this or that detail of interpretation in some of these performances, so if I say that there are aspects of this reading of the sublime Valiant-for-Truth that I might have preferred otherwise, let me underline that it is, nonetheless, as beautiful a performance as all the others on the disc. A pity, though, about the momentarily intrusive male alto timbre at “Who now will be my rewarder”, one of the most beautiful passages in the work, as well as what sounds like an edit during the silence which follows this passage.

Like Valiant-for-Truth, the Three Choral Hymns is a minor masterpiece. It was one of several works Vaughan Williams composed to celebrate the jubilee of the Leith Hill Musical Festival in 1930, and according to Timothy Brown’s booklet notes, this is the first recording of it in its organ-accompanied form. All three pieces are marvellous, but the third, “Whitsunday Hymn”, is pure balm. I only know one other performance, that by Matthew Best conducting the Corydon Singers on Hyperion, the orchestral version and thus with slightly greater claim to the collector’s attention. As regards the choral contribution, however, there is nothing to choose between the two performances. I had not listened to this work for a long time, and I’m looking forward to returning to both performances many times over the coming weeks.

Vaughan Williams is in many respects an enigmatic composer. Whilst much of his music may be taken, as it were, at face value and enjoyed as such, obstacles arise when one starts to ponder on its meaning; the composer himself would have argued that the question was irrelevant. Few of his works pose questions so intractable as A Vision of Aeroplanes. The words, chosen from the first chapter of the Book of Ezekiel, tell of bizarre, humanlike figures which appear out of a whirlwind and fire, of wheels that rise and fall with them, of the noise of the beating of the creatures’ wings “as the voice of the Almighty” and a throne upon which sits “the likeness of the glory of the Lord”. The main part of the work is Vaughan Williams at his most violent and uncompromising, the choral parts highly challenging technically, and the organ part even more so. This is a magnificent performance, though in common with others I have heard the huge organ part coupled with the church acoustic prevents some of the choral dissonances from being heard. I’ve never quite been able to come to terms with this piece, with its tritone and whole tone harmonies, so alien to most of the composer’s output, but once again this is a performance to which I will return with renewed determination in the hope of doing so. I do wonder, though, what those listeners without access to the internet, and therefore without the text in front of them, will be able to make of this work.

The virtuoso organ part in A Vision of Aeroplanes is brilliantly played by James McVinnie. The excellent organist in the other accompanied works is Ashok Gupta, a final-year student at Clare College.

And so to the main work in the programme, the Mass in G minor. Westminster Cathedral Choir with Martin Baker on Hyperion are marvellous in this work, as are Laudibus and Michael Brewer on Delphian. My favourite, though, is that conducted by Richard Hickox, with a choir called the Richard Hickox Singers, and issued alongside his Chandos performance of the Fourth Symphony. This is to cite only three of the many fine recorded performances available of the Mass, and to that group we may now add the present one from Clare College. The echoes of Tudor church music are particularly strong in this performance, and at certain points one is almost transported back through the centuries, such is the purity of the singing and the vision. The solo parts are particularly convincing, as they are throughout the disc, and Brown gets as close as any conductor I have heard to a real triple piano in the final cadence. A few technical points might trouble some listeners. For some reason the altos take a beat out of the third bar before the end of the Kyrie. Then there is a strange noise – from an edit? – just before the word “passus” in the Credo. This might only bother those who listen on headphones, but few people would miss the artificially extinguished reverberation between the intonation to the Gloria and the first notes from the choir. But none of that should deter collectors from acquiring this most desirable disc.

William Hedley