Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
An Oxford Elegy (1949) [20:34]
Flos Campi (1925) [18:15]
Te Deum in G (1928) [6:59]
O clap your hands (1920) [2:47]
The Old 100th (1953) [3:47]
Jack May (narrator); Roger Best (viola)
Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford
English String Orchestra/Stephen Darlington
rec. January 1989, Leominster Priory, UK
NIMBUS NI5166 [52:20]
Ralph Vaughan Williams declared himself to be agnostic, yet throughout his life he set sacred texts with apparent conviction. The question of just where he stood in relation to religion is unlikely ever to be resolved, but the following, taken from the excellent note by Nicholas Williams that accompanies this reissued disc, seems an eminently sensible and thoughtful overview, not only of that particular issue, but also of other aspects of this exceedingly complex figure. “For [Vaughan Williams] religion was only one image of the inner world for which music was the true source of revelation, intimately related to the ideal of a national art springing from the community’s deepest roots, and to his own Whitman-inspired credo of the questing soul of mankind. In the hallowed tradition of Anglican church music, as in folksong, he recognized an historical force which he harnessed and celebrated with utter sincerity. Yet his own complex spirit went beyond this. Whatever he composed, whether anthem, symphony or oratorio, bore in some way the contours of his rugged cast of mind, and rightly earned him the reputation of visionary.”
The disc is a collection of five choral pieces, four of which are settings of sacred texts or deal with a sacred theme. Since the main drawback with this collection is common to all five works, I’ll dispose of it here. The recording lacks immediacy and punch, to the extent that even the loudest passages in these works have a strangely muted quality. Just as serious, the choir is set well back in the overall sound-picture, to the extent of being all but inaudible at the first entry in The Old 100th.
Vaughan Williams enthusiasts are very protective of An Oxford Elegy, but I wonder if they aren’t more attached to Matthew Arnold’s words – which I could understand – than to the music. It’s not one of my favourite Vaughan Williams works, a heresy that might lose me friends in the Vaughan Williams fraternity. The words are lovely and the nostalgia they evoke is very powerful. But is the music all that good? And more importantly, does the music add anything to the words, either when spoken or, more rarely, when sung by the choir? It’s a powerfully atmospheric piece and for those who don’t already know it, it’s an essential part of the composer’s make-up. The performance is very accomplished. The recorded balance, as previously mentioned, renders the choir’s role even more difficult to justify, but it is the narrator who makes or breaks a performance of this work. Jack May is very fine, with a clear, sonorous voice which is very satisfying in its own way. But the aforementioned Vaughan Williams enthusiasts will compare him unfavourably to John Westbrook, who recorded the work with Sir David Willcocks in 1968 for EMI, and, going back to that performance now, I would have to agree. He is at once more restrained – in a very English way – and more passionate, bringing out the meaning more successfully.
Strange balances beset the performance of Flos Campi. You would hardly know there was a muted trumpet playing, fortissimo, on the third page of the score, for example. The choir is too loud at the beginning of the second section, making it difficult to establish atmosphere, and the solo viola and the choir are not always together in the ravishing passage that follows. Darlington’s tempo for the final passage headed “Set me as a seal upon thine heart” is a shade to fast, so that it lacks the necessary serenity. The choir and orchestra are excellent, and Roger Best is magnificent, so it’s a pity that the performance doesn’t quite show this piece – which is one of my favourite Vaughan Williams works – in its best light. For that you need to go to Matthew Best, Nobuko Imai and the Corydon Singers on Hyperion, and with that masterly performance you also get a gorgeous Serenade to Music, Five Mystical Songs and Fantasia on Christmas Carols, four contrasting masterpieces on a disc that should never be out of the catalogue. Perhaps even finer, though, in Flos Campi, is the performance on Naxos from the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Orchestra under Paul Daniel, featuring viola playing of remarkable eloquence from Paul Silverthorne. You also get an outstanding performance of the Fourth Symphony.
The Te Deum in G, a spirited piece that ends in calm, O clap your hands and The Old 100th are all very well done, but although it would be idle to suggest that the Christ Church Cathedral Choir in the latter work might replicate the sound of a Coronation congregation, the lack of weight of sound at the end of the disc is a let-down. In spite of the effort and talent of the performers, I’m disappointed not be able to welcome this disc more warmly.
Creditable performances for the most part, but let down by the sound.
And a further review …
This disc, modestly timed, brings together two of my favourite works by Vaughan Williams and adds three choral and celebratory brevities.
I was ‘brought up’ on the John Westbrook EMI Classics version of An Oxford Elegy. You can still get it in various EMI reissue packages. Its ineffable nobility is well worth hearing. Some people approach the meshing of oration and music with circumspection but the examples I have heard I have found more than captivating. Poetic language is often intensified in its effect by the accompanying music and vice versa. Try the oration in Bliss’s Morning Heroes also with John Westbrook in the classic EMI Groves/RLPO recording. Jack May (1922-1997) and his fellow Nimbus artists benefit from a much more recent and airy recording which is untroubled by the stone acoustic of Leominster Priory. May’s noble voice rings clear. For many years May played Nelson Gabriel in the UK radio soap The Archers. However he always stood above his material. Here he holds Matthew Arnold’s sweetly nostalgic pastoral up to the light and in this the choir and ESO meet him more than half way. It’s a lovely performance and well worth discovering and embracing. Roger Best’s Flos Campi is to the EMI Aronowitz version what May is to Westbrook. Both are touching with EMI giving more presence to Aronowitz than Nimbus do to Best. Pushed, I would favour Aronowitz for the warmth of the analogue recorded image. The classic 1970s analogue version by Frederick Riddle can be heard, by way of supplement, on a Chandos twofer in all its edgy glory. This reading of the Te Deum glows and pulses in an easy carillon of grandeur – most beautifully carried off. O Clap Your Hands goes with a brassy swing. The Old 100th drew Vaughan Williams again in the 1950s when he made it the focus of his Fantasia for piano, chorus and orchestra. This brassy ceremonial has the requisite pomp and grandeur but would have benefited from a yet larger choir. Even so no complaints about the silvery trumpet describing an undulating path across the shining firmament laid bare by the choir.
Unlike the two Tippett Nimbus back-catalogue items recently reviewed this disc comes without the words printed in the three-fold insert sheet. The major work, the Elegy, is an oration and there is no obstacle to hearing the spoken words but for the sections allotted to the choir and for the three other pieces it would have helped to have those words printed.
This disc, modestly timed, brings together two of my favourite works by Vaughan Williams in fine performances and adds three choral celebrations.