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English Visionaries
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
A Vision of Aeroplanes (1956) [10:07]
Prayer to the Father of Heaven (1947) [4:30]
Mass in G minor (1922) [21:57]
Lord, Thou hast been our refuge (1922) [8:41]
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
The Evening Watch, Op. 43 No. 1 (1924) [4:14]
Sing me the Men (1925) [5:23]
Herbert HOWELLS (1894-1983)
The House of the Mind (1954) [8:03]
Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir/Paul Spicer; Nicholas Morris (organ)
rec. 22-23 June 2015, St Alban the Martyr, Highgate, Birmingham
Texts included

There must be so many feathers now in the cap of the Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir that it will soon be capable of independent flight. For singers seeking a training in choral singing the opportunity to work with a conductor of the stature and experience of Paul Spicer allied to the chance of recording excellent discs such as this one must be very attractive. From memory this is their fifth collaboration on Somm with at least one other disc for Regent. The Somm discs have been very fine with the Stanford partsongs and the recital of Herbert Howells standing out.

Apart from the musical qualities demonstrated, Somm, through the work of producer Siva Oke and engineer Paul Arden-Taylor provide the choir with an excellent recording environment to exercise their considerable skill. With the exception of the first Somm disc which shared the repertoire between two composers, the previous Somm discs have all been single composer recitals. For this new disc, Spicer has created a skilfully planned and very effective recital of three of the greatest British composers for choirs; Vaughan Williams, Holst and Howells. Some of the music is rare(ish) but none unique. However, as is often the case with such recitals, it is the way differing pieces compliment each that adds to the overall pleasure. If one was being very picky, I would have to say that no performance here supplants my favourites elsewhere but the complete disc, heard as a whole is a delight.

Given the disc's title of "English Visionaries" I like the choice of opening with Vaughan Williams' Vision of Aeroplanes. This is very much Vaughan Williams in fire and brimstone Old Testament mode. Although a very late work - 1956 - it harks back to a similar sound world of the very great Sancta Civitas of some thirty years earlier. Technically this is a very demanding work both for the choir and the virtuoso organ accompaniment. I remember an old LP on RCA from the Exultate Singers where they struggled. Not so here, although the passagework is even more cleanly articulated by the choir of Clare College Cambridge under Timothy Brown on Naxos. The Birmingham organ is well played by Nicholas Morris but sounds a slightly woollier instrument compared to its Cambridge counterpart. Part of the excellent presentation of this Somm disc is full texts but Spicer ensures that the words are clearly audible throughout. This is such a dramatic work that it is surprising that Vaughan Williams never sought to orchestrate the accompaniment - perhaps it was simply too late in his life to achieve such a goal. It remains a minor masterpiece but one every admirer of the composer should know.

Vaughan Williams turned to the rather eccentric poetry of the Tudor John Skelton for the texts to his Five Tudor Portraits in 1936 and returned to him for his 1947 Prayer to the Father of Heaven. This is beautiful but less individual than the previous work and lacking the masterly genius of the Mass in G minor but as the liner writer Daniel Galbreath says; "... the near-Christian quest for faith [produce] a heady work for choir". Interestingly Spicer competes with himself on Chandos CHAN9019 which includes this work as well as the Vision, The House of the Mind, and Lord, thou hast been our Refuge. Although I know many of the Spicer/Finzi Singers/Chandos discs this is one I have not heard so I cannot make direct comparisons. With regard to Prayer to the Father of Heaven it appears on a Naxos disc from the Elora Festival Singers - who also include the Mass and 'Refuge'. Listening to various choirs singing Vaughan Williams there seem to be three basic interpretative styles; overtly expressive, intimate or one focusing on a sheer flow of beautiful tone. Each approach brings benefits and insights and across a range of Vaughan Williams' work is not equally suited to all. I find the Elora singers to be a fine ensemble but slightly too mannered in their phrasing - rather self consciously putting into practice points made in rehearsal. Mike Brewer's Laudibus singers share the same youthful tonal quality as Spicer's Birmingham students which is very attractive but Spicer creates a more intimate, reflective quality that give the work a movingly meditative atmosphere. Throughout the disc Spicer does not go for the utter blending of vocal parts that some choirs seek. As recorded, within the overall choral sound individual voices can be tracked - again sometimes to the music's benefit but elsewhere the striking purity of some choirs gives the music a transcendent quality that is very effective.

This is no-where more true than in the remarkable masterpiece that is Vaughan Williams' Mass in G minor. If a ship was sinking which held all of his music and there was room in the lifeboat for just half a dozen pieces - this would be one I would take. Written for Holst's amateur Whitsuntide Singers in 1922 it remains one of the great settings of the Mass from any age or country - a bold statement I know but one I would happily debate! Holst writing to Vaughan Williams at the time said; "How on earth the Morleyites are ever going to learn the Mass I don't know. It is quite beyond us but still further beyond us is the idea that we are not going to do it." Conversely the liner writer for a BBC magazine disc of the Mass sung by the professional BBC Singers writes; "Any decent choir can sing it pretty much on first sight." Of course part of that difference is the improvement in choral singing over the best part of a century. But the mistake of the anonymous liner writer is to confuse superficial simplicity of composition with ease of performance. Interestingly that same BBC Singers version, for all its undoubted technical competence, falls significantly short on the sense of inner rapture that makes this such a special and moving work.

I have an enduring fondness for the first version of the work I knew on Warner/EMI from David Willcocks and the Kings College Cambridge choir. This seems to encapsulate the archetypal Anglican Cathedral Choir 'sound' - using boy trebles and with a carefully manicured blended tone. Much has been written about Vaughan Williams' agnosticism and the fact that the original choir were mixed voices and the premiere was not in a Church. So in many ways this can be heard as an 'inauthentic' performance but it does strike me that Willcocks finds a meditative beauty in this performance that disarms criticism. A very early version on CD was one of the first recordings from Matthew Best and his Corydon Singers imaginatively and powerfully coupled with the equally moving Howells Requiem. This was recorded in February 1983 and still sounds remarkably fine. Best emphasises the inner contemplative aspect of the music and is helped hugely by the quality of the recording and the youthful-sounding beauty of his choir both as a group and soloists. The Naxos/Timothy Brown disc is also sonically very beautiful with Brown favouring generally more flowing tempi. And so the list could go on - I like Hickox's imaginative coupling of the Mass with Symphony No.4 in very good Chandos SACD sound - all of which is a way of saying Spicer and his Birmingham team face very stiff opposition indeed. By the final measure they are not yet the best - I must admit to not particularly liking the sound of some of the solo singing - but Spicer ensures that this is an intelligent, well crafted and always engaging performance. As is so often the case it can be the 'simplest' music that can prove to be most testing to performers of any age or experience. As part of this enjoyable recital this is very good - as a stand-alone reason for buying the disc collectors should look elsewhere.

Another good example of the skilled programming of this disc is the juxtaposition of the two Holst settings immediately after the Mass. If Vaughan Williams manages to find remarkable sensual beauty in austerity, Holst seeks a quite different sound world. In his setting of The Evening Watch hear how after the opening solo Holst harmonises "sleep in peace" with the closely clashing lines giving the music that glinting brilliance so typical of much of his work. Spicer again competes with himself on an earlier Chandos disc which curiously seems to have been performed at a fractionally lower pitch than every other version I know. Interesting to compare the mainly 'chamber choir' versions with a larger choral group such as Simon Halsey's CBSO chorus on an old Conifer disc. The extra number of voices gives additional weight to the sound and allows the music to expand impressively but Halsey's opening soloist is distinctly nervous; thinly voiced and short-breathed. I like Halsey's broader tempo but again this new version has much to commend it - in fact it is very similar to Imogen Holst's Purcell Singers in terms of tempo although as recorded Spicer gives greater prominence to the demandingly high-lying soprano lines whereas Holst allows them to act as a kind of harmonic detail haloing the lower part writing. All in all a very good version of this work which proves yet again - if it ever needed to be proved - that Holst is so much more than 'just' the composer of the Planets. An idea further reinforced by Sing Me the Men which is the second of the two motets Op.43 of which The Evening Watch is number one. This new CD cover omits to list these two works as a pair although the liner does refer to them as a pair. Halsey's larger choir is again good at communicating the energy of this rather strange Victorian visionary text. Also, the extra soprano voices are good in the remarkable passage where the men sing a unison line and the women carousel above them like larks in a summer sky. That said the CBSO women sound more taxed by Holst's writing in alt with the Birmingham Conservatoire singers making a fresher sound.

Herbert Howells' writing for choir is justly famed and The House of the Mind is an excellent example of his non-liturgical settings. It fits perfectly within the "English Visionaries" remit and is the only work on the disc I had not previously encountered. Indeed, it is rare in the catalogue with the earlier Spicer seeming to be the only competition. Fascinatingly it seems that "Spicer 1" runs to nearly 10 minutes whereas "Spicer 2" is just 8:03. In no way does this new version sound at all 'rushed' so unless there are (unusual) repeats or optional cuts this would seem to be a radical reconceptualising of the work. As I can only judge this from the version before me I have to say it sounds very fine indeed. More sensitive organ accompaniment from Nicholas Morris. The keyboard writing here is less invasively virtuosic than in the Vision but it adds to the contemplative quality. Joseph Beaumont's 17th century text consists of just four brief verses so this gives Howells plenty of opportunity for developing and musing on the meaning behind the words. The part-writing is quite masterly with the harmonies flowing for lush consonance to glittering dissonance with effortless skill. Spicer's skill is maintaining the focus and direction and poise of the work. With music as sheerly beautiful as this it is easy for singers and interpreters to become beguiled by the moment.

The disc - in another wise piece of planning - closes with one of those Vaughan Williams settings of pure genius: Lord, Thou hast been our refuge where the composer manages to overlay a familiar tune, here "St Anne". Over the gentle unison presentation of that marvellous melody Vaughan Williams sets solo prayers which coalesce into a beautiful setting of the main text which in turn builds via an organ interlude before in a stroke of pure theatre Vaughan Williams brings back "St. Anne" now on a solo trumpet which leads to the full chorus overlapping and ecstatically singing the closing lines. It is a genuinely uplifting and moving conclusion to this fine disc - possibly Matthew Best's version in the orchestral accompaniment is even more thrilling but simply because of the bigger scale and power the full orchestra can provide.

So, another fine disc from Somm and Paul Spicer with his student choir from Birmingham. The greatest strengths are the overall quality of the programme and its technical presentation which makes this a unique and highly enjoyable hour's listening. The selective listener might seek individual works in alternative performances but this remains a wholly impressive recital.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: John Quinn



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