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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
A Cambridge Mass (1897-99) [45:08]
Sir Hubert PARRY (1848-1918)
Blest Pair of Sirens (1887) [10:53]
Olivia Robinson (soprano); Rebecca Lodge (contralto); Christopher Bowen (tenor); Edward Price (baritone); Martin Ennis (organ); The Bach Choir
New Queen’s Hall Orchestra/Alan Tongue
rec. live, 3 March 2011, Fairfield Halls, Croydon.
Latin text and English translation (Vaughan Williams); English text (Parry) included
ALBION RECORDS ALBCD020 [56:13]

Albion Records, the record label of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society, has already delighted lovers of his music with several fascinating releases of pieces by RVW that have been neglected so far as the recording industry was concerned. These have included The Solent and other early orchestral pieces (review) and Folk Songs of the Four Seasons (review). However I rather fancy that this, their latest release, may be the most important of all so far.
 
It’s a recording of A Cambridge Mass. This was composed as RVW’s submission for his Cambridge music doctorate – and the fact that it is was a ‘test piece’ is highly relevant, as we shall see. Unpublished, and quite possibly unperformed, its existence in the British Library was probably known to some scholars but the work remained nothing more than a library manuscript until 2007 when the conductor of the present performance, Alan Tongue, took it upon himself to transcribe all 155 pages of the manuscript and prepare the score for performance and publication. What we have here is the recording of the world première performance in 2011.
 
I said that it was highly relevant that this was, in effect, an examination paper. As Alan Tongue relates in his very detailed notes, RVW was obliged to comply with the strict examination criteria. These included the requirement to compose a choral/orchestral work, lasting between 40 and 60 minutes. The piece had to contain some substantial sections for double choir as well as parts for at least one vocal soloist and there had to be either an overture or other instrumental movement in ‘first movement form’. Candidates were required to exhibit proficiency in disciplines such as canon and fugue. All this might suggest that a successful candidate would submit a stuffy, academic piece similar to some of the second-rate material that was produced over the years to the jury for the Prix de Rome. In fact, as Alan Tongue says, “Far from being academic in tone [the Mass] is full of personality, energy and good tunes. It shows, four years before he began writing A Sea Symphony, that he could compose on a grand scale and, as such, it has the hallmarks of the great composer who was to emerge.”
 
I think anyone listening to this work ‘blind’ would be unlikely to recognise the composer: for instance, it contains little of the harmonic language that was to be in evidence not many years later in A Sea Symphony. In truth, the musical language is indebted to such composers as Brahms and Schumann – as were the works of most British composers of the time – and, unsurprisingly, Parry and Stanford have left their mark too. Nonetheless, the Mass is a work of genuine individuality. It shows a confident composer, one who is technically highly proficient and who has something to say. And already, working with the Latin text of the Mass, we can hear a composer for whom words matter.
 
This is not a complete setting of the ordinary of the Mass – that would not come until the glorious flowering that is the Mass in G minor of 1921. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, RVW set only the Credo and the Sanctus/Benedictus. The Credo is followed by a substantial orchestral intermezzo, ‘Offertorium’. The vocal forces required are SATB soloists and double chorus (SATB). I’m not sure what orchestration is stipulated but I’d guess at a Brahmsian orchestra of double wind, four horns, two or probably three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani and organ.
 
The Credo is in four sections. The first of these gets off to a big, majestic start with full choir and orchestra, the brass ringing out nobly. This is confident, strong music and both as a composition and an examination submission it serves as a strong statement of intent: RVW was as determined to gain his doctorate as he was to win the attention of any audience that might hear the piece. The solo quartet is heard in the next, slower section. There’s some attractive writing for the soloists and the harmonies are more adventurous than in the opening section. Amid some pleasing orchestral writing the prominent first clarinet part is particularly appealing. Towards the end of this section the ‘Crucifixus’, led by the contralto, is very dramatic; here the writing is almost operatic in its intensity.
 
Jubilant fanfares announce the Resurrection. The ‘Et resurrexit’ is a strongly affirmative, fugal passage for the choir. Alan Tongue tells us that the passage beginning ‘et unam sanctam Catholicam Ecclesiam’ is a “canon 4 in 2 (perpetual)”. Maybe so, but the music transcends RVW’s dutiful observance of academic requirements; it’s actually very interesting. Those who think the fugues in Ein Deutsches Requiem go on for rather longer than is advisable should perhaps be warned that for the ‘Amen’ RVW constructs a double fugue that lasts for over seven minutes. But don’t be put off: the music is inventive and nicely varied and, in any case, the Bach Choir, with sensitive support from the orchestra, keep the music light and mobile. The very end of the movement, in which the soloists also take part, is triumphant.
 
I don’t think that the fugue at the end of the Credo outstays its welcome but I’m not quite so sure about the orchestral ‘Offertorium’. This lasts for fractionally under eleven minutes in this performance and, frankly, it rather unbalances the work: in Mass setting one wants to hear vocal music. I appreciate that RVW was “batting to orders” but perhaps he could have worked out his material over a slightly shorter space of time. As Alan Tongue says the music ‘contains echoes’ of Schumann, Brahms and Dvořák. He also cites Parry as an influence and, having heard his symphonies, I’d be tempted to add Stanford’s name to that list. Having criticised the length of the piece I should say that the thematic material, some of which is derived from the Credo, is attractive and the music is very well written for the orchestra, albeit in a very late-nineteenth century style.
 
The Sanctus is, for me, the best movement. It begins with canonic writing for double choir – though the music is of sufficient quality that one isn’t aware of the theoretical discipline of the canon. The choirs sing quietly and are accompanied most effectively by brass, organ and timpani. The music is slow and stately and has a celestial feel to it. Here Vaughan Williams offers some most imaginative textures. At ‘Dominus Deus Sabaoth’ the music becomes louder and more majestic and this expansive mood prevails to the end of the section. The ‘Hosanna’ – another double fugue – is festive and joyful.
 
The soloists carry the argument in the Benedictus. Their vocal lines weave around each other very skilfully and the light orchestral accompaniment is very subtle. I have to say that I wasn’t always entirely convinced by the way the solo team projects the music here. There follows a reprise of the ‘Hosanna’ to bring the Mass to a strong, confident and cheerful conclusion. About a minute of applause follows but the audience has been commendably unobtrusive during the performance itself.
 
Alan Tongue must have put in countless hours of work to get this Mass into a performable state but his work has been fully vindicated and all lovers of Vaughan Williams’s music – and indeed anyone with an interest in English music – should be profoundly grateful to him. This score may not reveal the mature RVW to us but this is an important, assured piece in its own right and it is invaluable in helping our understanding of the composer’s development. We may not immediately recognise the harmonic fingerprints of the composer of Toward the Unknown Region and A Sea Symphony but now we can see more clearly than ever that those works didn’t just spring out of thin air. It’s appropriate to let the final word on the score rest with the composer’s friend, biographer and long time champion, Michael Kennedy who, I should imagine, must have been thrilled to hear this work for the first time. After the première he said this: “To regard this Mass as an apprentice exercise would be a misjudgement. It is the real Vaughan Williams on his way to greatness.”
 
The work has been well served in this first performance. The Bach Choir sings very well indeed and the orchestral contribution is equally good. The New Queen’s Hall Orchestra plays on the sort of instruments that would have been used by London orchestras at the turn of the twentieth century and the somewhat softer sound, as compared to that produced by modern orchestras, is a boon here. Generally, the vocal soloists do well: I liked the contributions of the two ladies best.
 
What an excellent idea it was to couple the Mass with a work by RVW’s teacher, Parry. Blest Pair of Sirens is one of the greatest works in the English choral repertoire and it’s good to hear it sung by the choir for which it was composed in 1887. The 2011 vintage of the Bach Choir do their heritage proud; this is a very good performance. The only thing in it that I didn’t like was Alan Tongue’s slightly clumsy transition to the più mosso at ‘To live with him’ but everything else about the performance is really good. I particularly relished the strong, focussed sound of the Bach Choir’s basses in that più mosso section through to the end. It was also a delight to hear the clarity which the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra brings to the orchestral introduction.
 
The recorded sound is very good and the documentation is as comprehensive as you could wish for.
 
This is an important release which all English music devotees should hear as soon as possible.
 
John Quinn

Vaughan Williams review index