Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872–1958) Dona nobis pacem (1936)*
[34:29] Stephen HOUGH (b.1961) Missa Mirabilis (2006/2012) [20:13]
Sarah Fox (soprano)*
Christopher Maltman (baritone)*
Colorado Symphony Chorus
Colorado Symphony/Andrew Litton
rec. Boettcher Concert Hall, Denver, Colorado, USA, 2014.
Texts and translations included Reviewed as 24/96 download, with pdf booklet, from
(also available on CD and in mp3 and 16-bit lossless downloads.) HYPERION CDA68096 [54:42]
Just as I was completing this review John Quinn beat me to the draw
so I would normally have added a few words in my next Download News,
but I decided to let the full review stand.
There already were several very good recordings of Vaughan Williams’s
Dona Nobis Pacem. I haven’t listened to them all for comparison
but they include Richard Hickox (Warner/EMI 7547882, with Sancta
Civitas), David Hill (Naxos 8.572424, with Sancta Civitas
Bryden Thomson (Chandos CHAN8590, with Five Mystical Songs),
Sir Adrian Boult (now only in a 13-CD Warner box set), Ralph Vaughan
Williams himself from 1951 (Somm SOMM071, with Symphony No.5 – review)
and a surprisingly effective late entrant from Robert Spano and the
Atlanta SO, my Discovery of the Month in DL
News 2014/11 (ASO1005, download only, with Symphony No.4 and The
I have sometimes found myself slightly ambiguous about Vaughan Williams’s
choral music: the Serenade to Music, for example, doesn’t do
anything for me despite the fact that it sets some of Shakespeare’s
most beautiful poetry, as spoken by a character whom I once played many
years ago. Even the Five Mystical Songs need the right kind of
performance, such as they receive on the Bryden Thomson recording for
Chandos listed above, and his Five Tudor Portraits even more
so. Hilary Davan Wetton, who produces a good performance of the Mystical
Songs, fails to capture the rollicking spirit of the Tudor Portraits
on a rare misfire from Hyperion. (CDH55004). Even Richard Hickox, my
current recommendation for the Tudor Portraits (Chandos CHAN9593,
with the beautiful Variants of Dives and Lazarus) doesn’t quite
match Sir Adrian Boult – will someone please restore Boult’s EMI recording?
All these were somewhere in the back of my mind but it was the Hickox
performance that I chose to listen to for comparison. It’s especially
recommendable in that it now sells at budget price – you may well find
it for less than the Naxos, which makes it all the more surprising that
Qobuz are asking £9.09 for it as a download and not even offering the
Somewhere years ago I must have heard an insipid performance of Dona
Nobis Pacem. It took the Hickox recording for me to realise what
I had been missing and since then the other recordings that I’ve mentioned
have all done the trick, too.
Andrew Litton on the new recording takes the opening Agnus Dei
a good deal faster (2:59) than Hickox (4:01); though he’s closer to
Thomson (3:32), Boult (3:31), Hill (3:26) and Vaughan Williams himself
(3:22) that does look like dangerously fast on paper. In practice, however,
this is a performance to equal any of these, not least for the beauty
of the singing from Sarah Fox and the Colorado chorus. If there had
been any doubt whether these American performers could capture the spirit
of the quintessentially English Vaughan Williams, this movement dispels
them from the word go. Unless I had sat watching the time tick by on
Winamp, I would never have imagined that Litton despatches the Agnus
Dei so quickly. Nor does Hickox seem to take one second too long
– as always, timings are less important that a feeling for the music,
such as Litton and Hickox both have.
Litton’s tempo for Beat! Beat! drums! is much closer to the general
consensus; he and his forces give as powerful a performance of this
section as any, with notable contributions from the timpani on a par
with Hickox’s LSO. By now I was beginning to realise that this was going
to be another version to add to my shortlist for this work.
I’ve already mentioned Sarah Fox’s contribution; Christopher Maltman
is just as fine a soloist when he enters in Reconciliation. The
two soloists are very well balanced against the chorus and orchestra,
too, thanks to the performers themselves and the recording quality.
Even when the soloists are singing most quietly, they remain perfectly
In the rest of the work Litton tends to take the music a little faster
than the others but never to its detriment. Overall my initial impression
that this would become my one of my top choices has been fully borne
out by this powerful performance, so it will remain only to decide whether
I wish to listen to more Vaughan Williams or the new Stephen Hough Mass.
Thankfully Hyperion leave a long gap at the end of Dona nobis pacem
before the beginning of the Stephen Hough Mass. Composed in 2006
for Westminster Cathedral, the Missa Mirabilis was orchestrated
in 2012 and that is the version performed here. I enjoyed hearing it
and shall undoubtedly return to it. I shall not analyse it in detail
because John Quinn has already done that very well, other than to say
that one reason for its appeal was its clear indebtedness to the religious
music of Poulenc and to note the hint of Janácek in the Creed, which
I see that JQ also noted – by which I don’t mean to imply any borrowings.
Perhaps that echo of Janácek arose from a shared ambiguity about the
central tenets of Christianity – what Hough describes in his notes as
uncertainty about what he means when he recites these words at Mass,
which suggests that he has more in common with Vaughan Williams’ Christian
agnosticism than might be apparent.
With no benchmark, this seems as good a performance and recording as
we are likely to get. The other Vaughan Williams recordings which I
have mentioned are all good, but the new Hyperion scores by its availability
in 24-bit format, where it’s most impressive. I regret their decision
to abandon the SACD format – see my recent review of their last few
still available – but their 24/96 downloads offer ample compensation
unless you are looking for surround sound.
The booklet is well up to Hyperion’s high standards, with excellent
notes on the Vaughan Williams by Michael Kennedy and Stephen Hough’s
own commentary on the Missa Mirabilis in which he explains how
the title originated: in the middle of composition he escaped an 80
mph crash on the M1 motorway, a miracle indeed. One small point: the
English translation is an odd hybrid affair, apparently a modernisation
of the version in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer – different from
the modern Roman and Anglican usage and sometimes at odds with the Latin.
Hyperion compensate for the short playing time by reducing the price
of the download versions on this occasion – just £5.99 for mp3 and 16-bit
– that’s even less than the budget CDs that I’ve mentioned – and £9.00
This is a Dona nobis pacem to rival the best, even better recorded
than other versions, with an interesting new work thrown in. Even the
cover picture, Paul Klee’s The Lamb, is appropriate.