Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Mass in G minor (1922) [25:41]
Sacred and Secular Songs: (i. Valiant for Truth [5:43]; ii. The Blessed Son of God [2:37]; iii. No Sad Thought His Soul Affright [2:26]; iv. Lord, Thou hast been our Refuge [8:01]; v. O Taste and See [1:40])
Three Shakespeare Songs: (i. Full Fathom Five [2:36]; ii. The Cloud-Capp'd Towers [2:03]; iii. Over Hill, Over Dale [1:33])
Iain Simcock (organist)
Christ Church Cathedral Choir/Stephen Darlington
rec. 8-9 December 1986, Merton College Chapel, Oxford, England
No sung texts
NIMBUS RECORDS NI 5083 [52:29]
The choir of Oxford’s 12th-century Christ Church Cathedral is 500 years old and was first directed in the reign of King Henry VIII by the distinguished Tudor composer John Taverner who was appointed by Cardinal Wolsey in 1526.
Taking up over half of the playing time the principal work on this CD is Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G minor. He composed this setting of the Latin mass in 1922 around the time of his appointment as Professor of Composition at the Royal College of Music (RCM) and the conferring of an honorary doctorate at Oxford University. The early 1920s was a period of inspiration and success for Vaughan Williams with scores such as the Symphony No. 3A Pastoral Symphony’ and the opera The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains and the première in 1921 of The Lark Ascending for violin and orchestra.
The Mass in G minor is scored for unaccompanied SATB soloists and double chorus. It is noteworthy for being written in the traditional a-cappella English style of the sixteenth century masses of Thomas Tallis and William Byrd. Vaughan Williams dedicated the G minor Mass jointly to his friend and fellow former pupil at the RCM, Gustav Holst and the Whitsuntide Singers from Thaxted, Essex. It was the City of Birmingham Singers that gave its first performance in the non-liturgical setting of Birmingham Town Hall in December 1922. Under the direction of Stephen Darlington the choir show considerable assurance with impressive timbre in the Kyrie a movement with a dark undercurrent. The choir are fluent and pliable amid the quick shifts of tempi in the Gloria in excelsis. In the varied moods, textures and tempi of the lengthy Credo the choir bathes the listener in devout sentiment. A persuasive rendition of the Sanctus remarkable for its contrast of tenderness against lofty peaks of supplication features especially joyous singing from the boys. Concluding the Mass is a deeply felt rendition of the Agnus Dei. Throughout I was impressed by the Oxford Choir’s engaged adherence to the sacred texts. This is a most memorable performance that on balance I place on a par with the outstanding recording by the Holst Singers directed by Hilary Davan Wetton. Recorded in 1991 at St. Paul’s Girls School, Hammersmith in London this is a cherished recording of mine displaying a lovely blended tone and reverence. It’s on Regis RRC 1135 c/w Elgar 7 Part-Songs.
Next come the Five Sacred and Secular Songs commencing with the 1940 motet Valiant for Truth for unaccompanied SATB mixed chorus. Here Vaughan Williams uses a secular text from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Naturally eloquent the boys’ and men’s voices are prominent and display a wonderful unity. The composer was 81 when he wrote his Christmas cantata Hodie in 1954 from which the composer has taken the two carols: The Blessed Son of God and No Sad Thought His Soul Affright. The first is a setting of text by Miles Coverdale after a Martin Luther hymn. It’s undemanding and highly agreeable. Secondly, in No Sad Thought His Soul Affright the choir’s voices blend with real refinement to a joint text from an anonymous author and by Ursula Vaughan Williams. In 1921 Vaughan Williams wrote the substantial motet Lord, Thou Hast Been Our Refuge, a setting of verses from Psalm 90. Here, set against the psalm text in the manner of a chorale, is Isaac Watts’ version of O God, Our Help in Ages Past to William Croft’s hymn tune St. Anne. The choir freshly convey the dignified gravity of sacred inspiration. A special favourite of mine, the brief yet splendid motet O Taste and See marked Andante sostenuto, is performed in its version for unaccompanied chorus with a solo treble. A setting of a text from Psalm 3, verse 8, O Taste and See was composed for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in Westminster Abbey in June 1953. During the Coronation service the choristers directed by Sir William McKie sang the motet while the Queen took Communion. A real highlight, right at the beginning, is the glorious effect provided by the fleetingly short organ part and the unnamed boy soloist with the subsequent entry of the choir.

To conclude the release are the Three Shakespeare Songs from 1951 that the composer dedicated to Cecil Armstrong Gibbs. The first song, Full Fathom Five, a setting from The Tempest, is notable for the unanimity of the singing. Next the highly appealing songs The Cloud-Capp'd Towers another setting from The Tempest and Over Hill, Over Dale using text from A Midsummer Night's Dream are splendidly rendered with considerable care and affection.
Recorded in 1986 in the superb acoustic of Oxford’s Merton College Chapel, Stephen Darlington directs assured and well prepared performances. The purity of the boys’ voices stands out and the precision of the choral ensemble is outstanding. The only real drawback with this otherwise excellent release is the lack of sung texts and we are not told which soloist is singing what.
This winning disc has been in the catalogue for quite some time. It presents mainly sacred music by Vaughan Williams from the Christ Church Cathedral Choir and is quite beautifully sung and recorded.
Michael Cookson
A winning disc of mainly sacred music that is quite beautifully sung and recorded.