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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 SOMM CÉLESTE SOMMCD0159 [63:00]
Paul Spicer and the Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir have developed a fruitful partnership with the SOMM label; this, I believe, is their fourth venture together and I’ve enjoyed all of them to date. They’ve already released discs of Stanford partsongs and of choral music by Howells and by Samuel Barber. Here they offer a particularly interesting programme of English music. As Daniel Galbreath, a member of the choir, points out in his very useful notes, none of the three composers represented here expressed visionary religious beliefs but still wrote sacred music that could accurately be described as visionary.
That’s particularly true of Vaughan Williams, whose music accounts for the bulk of Paul Spicer’s programme. A Vision of Aeroplanes is an astonishing work which includes a formidable organ part; indeed, I often think it would not be fanciful to describe it as a piece for organ with choral accompaniment. Here Nicholas Morris has at his disposal the Rushworth and Dreaper organ at the church of St Alban the Martyr and he conjures imposing, dramatic sounds from it. The text is from the Prophecy of Ezekiel and so has nothing to do with aeroplanes. That was a bit of poetic licence on the part of VW: the text actually concerns the appearance to the prophet in a vision of ‘four living creatures [each one of which] … had four faces, and every one had four wings.’ The music in which VW illustrates the vision is thrilling and highly dramatic; Daniel Galbreath is surely right to point to a parallel with Sancta Civitas. It’s ferociously demanding music but Spicer and his young musicians deliver it with great commitment in an exciting performance.
At the other end of the programme comes an equally visionary if very different VW piece, Lord, Thou hast been our refuge. Psalm 90 as paraphrased by Isaac Watts, which provides the text, is an urgent prayer for divine assistance and deliverance. VW weaves into his setting the ‘St Anne’ hymn tune (‘O God, our help in ages past’) and this provides a spiritual sheet anchor, giving a sense of security and a traditional rooting amidst the uncertainties of the Psalm. At the end, the re-emergence of the tune, reinforced by a shining trumpet (Jonathan Sheppard) provides a strong ending that seems as foursquare and enduring as a great cathedral building.
Lord, Thou hast been our refuge dates from 1922, the same year as the great Mass in G minor. Here, in a choral piece, VW pays homage to the great Tudor composers just as eloquently as he had done twelve years earlier in the ‘Tallis’ Fantasia. The Fantasia was a masterpiece for string orchestra; the Mass is a masterpiece for a cappella choir. This present performance is very fine. The Kyrie is serene and the solo quartet makes an effective contribution; the bass soloist’s voice is somewhat light but these are young student voices. In the Gloria, as elsewhere, the division between the two choirs comes across well in the recording though without any excessive, unnatural separation. The slower middle section of this movement (Qui tollis peccata mundi) is beautifully done. Similarly in the Credo while I relished the delivery of the vigorous sections it’s the hushed, intense Et incarnatus est section that makes the strongest impression of all. I admire very much the agility and purity of the female voices in the Sanctus; the performance of the Benedictus is delicate and the Mass concludes with a dedicated account of the Agnus Dei. This is an excellent performance, one in which the choir pays excellent attention to details in the score.
VW’s great friend, Holst is represented by two short pieces. The Henry Vaughan setting, The Evening Watch is an elusive, subtle piece. It’s very well done here. If I’ve heard Sing me the Men before I can’t recall it. It’s a setting of a Victorian poem by one Digby Mackworth-Dolben (1848-1867). I don’t think much of the words but Holst’s music is interesting. It moves from robust music for unison tenors and basses (verse 1) to mystical material for female voices (verse 5) after which the textures in the last three verses are much more complex.
Daniel Galbreath tells us that Howells wrote The House of the Mind while his huge and very complex Missa Sabrinensis was being prepared for its first performance at the 1954 Three Choirs Festival. This short piece is full of the rich, exotic harmonic language and long melodic lines so characteristic of the composer. After an extensive harmonic journey – albeit one that lasts only a few minutes - the choir’s final cadence, wholly in keeping with the words, comes as a very satisfying finis.
This is an uncommonly interesting programme, devised with no little perception – how I wish VW's Valiant-for-Truth could have been included also. It’s also a programme that’s extremely challenging for the choir and the young singers of the Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir acquit themselves very well indeed. These are student voices and so they lack some of the fullness of tone – especially among the basses – that one hears from the adult chamber choirs that have essayed this music on CD; when it comes to the Mass in G minor I’m thinking of the likes of the Holst Singers and the Corydon Singers. On the other hand this Birmingham choir has a freshness of tone that’s most appealing and they sing this demanding programme with terrific commitment and assurance. Paul Spicer has clearly prepared the choir scrupulously but, more than that, I sense he has galvanised them during the sessions to give their very best. I enjoyed the disc very much indeed.
The sound quality is excellent. Engineer Paul Arden-Taylor has recorded the choir expertly, producing sound that is clear yet atmospheric. Though most of the music is unaccompanied the organ contributions are excitingly recorded.
This is an excellent disc. I believe that the choir’s next recording will be a disc of music by John Joubert to mark that composer’s 90th birthday next March. I look forward to that very much.