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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Dona nobis pacem (1936, (re-orchestrated by Jonathan Rathbone) [32:49] Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990) Chichester Psalms (1965)* [18:31]
Ailish Tynan (soprano); Roderick Williams (baritone); George Hill (treble);
*Richard Gowers & Henry Websdale (organ)
The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge/Stephen Cleobury
rec. January & June, 2017, Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge
Texts & English translations included
Bonus download track: Stephen Paulus The Road Home [3:31] KINGS COLLEGEKGS0021 SACD [51:20]
This new recording by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge piqued my interest because it includes Vaughan Williams’ Dona nobis pacem in a new, reduced orchestration which I think I’m right in saying has been commissioned by King’s. I must confess that I was unsure what to expect from the re-scoring. On the one hand, VW’s original orchestration is thrilling but I have to admit that it’s on a lavish scale, especially for a work lasting just over half-an-hour: amateur choral societies are likely to see their treasurers raise eyebrows if such an expensive work is proposed.
It’s also very welcome to get a new recording of Dona nobis pacem in any case. I think it’s a magnificent, very eloquent work and, moreover, it’s one which offers a choice example of VW’s always discerning selection of texts to set. I had hoped that the (rightly) prolonged commemoration of the centenary of the Great War might bring about a resurgence in performances since the work is so appropriate. I’m not aware that there has been a great upsurge in performances, though, Furthermore, to the best of my knowledge, there’s only been one new recording in recent years: the Hyperion version conducted by Andrew Litton (review).
As I say, VW scored Dona nobis pacem on a pretty massive scale. The piece requires a dozen each of woodwind and brass though a note in the vocal score states that “by playing the ‘cues’ in the various instrumental parts some of the instruments can be dispensed with.”. (There is also a version for string orchestra and piano. I’ve not heard that and I don’t know if it was made by the composer or with his authority. I can’t imagine, however, that it could be anything other than the palest of substitutes.) In his re-orchestration Jonathan Rathbone has reduced the woodwind forces to two: flute and oboe/cor anglais. Two horns and a single trumpet are specified as well as timpani and three percussion players. The strings are correspondingly reduced (5/3/3/2/1). VW used organ and harp and Rathbone has not only retained these instruments but has expanded their respective parts. In particular, the organ fills in what would otherwise be many gaps in the texture. He explains in a note about the work he has done that it wasn’t really possible to reduce VW’s use of percussion very much. So, a slimmed-down orchestration to bring joy to the heart of a choral society treasurer: what does it sound like?
In fact, Rathbone’s scoring works quite well. There were a few occasions when I missed the full effect of VW’s scoring. For example, the third movement, ‘Reconciliation’, has an important violin solo at the start but the effect of this is rather nullified when there are only five first violins playing anyway. I also missed the sheer power of VW’s brass scoring at times in ‘Beat! Beat! Drums’ and at the imposing climaxes in ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’. Perhaps the greatest loss comes during the final movement in the big, aspiring passage that begins at “Open to me the gates of righteousness”. In this section one is rather conscious that there’s only one trumpet and the bells and percussion rather dominate. On the whole, though, Jonathan Rathbone seems to me to have done a very musicianly and pragmatic job. And, as Stephen Cleobury rightly observes in the booklet, his scoring achieves clarity. I think amateur choral societies are likely to welcome this version not just on economic grounds but also because VW’s full scoring can be a bit overpowering at times, as I recall from the occasions I’ve sung the piece. The only caveat I’d make is that the recording presents the scoring under optimum conditions with everything judiciously balanced; things might be a bit different in live performance with a reasonably-sized SATB choir.
That, I’m afraid, brings me to the Achilles heel of this recording: the choral contribution. There are 32 singers in the King’s choir (17/4/4/7) and I’m afraid that even with the reduced orchestral forces and the assistance of microphones they often struggle to make a sufficient impact. Furthermore, to my ears, the sound this all-male choir makes is just not right for this music. At the start, after the initial soprano solo it sounds as if a semi-chorus is singing the choir’s opening phrases except, of course, that it’s the full choir. (Actually, that effect is good.) When, after a few bars, the choir pleads “Dona nobis pacem”, singing fortissimo, there simply isn’t enough heft. I decided to use as my comparative recording the Bach Choir’s recording on Naxos (review). There one hears the full SATB forces for which Vaughan Williams conceived the music and, frankly, the comparison is not to King’s advantage.
There’s more disappointment in ‘Beat! Beat! Drums’. This is a fiery, dramatic and hugely dynamic movement which includes some moments of blazing excitement. Crucially, however, amid all the tumult the choral parts are not always marked forte or fortissimo; there are a good number of passages where the marking is piano. Admittedly, with all that’s going on in the orchestral accompaniment – whether reduced or in the original version – one needs to take the piano marking with a pinch of salt. Even so, I hear very little dynamic contrast from the King’s choir; one has the impression that they’re having to sing out pretty consistently because the number of singers is so small. On the plus side, I admired the clarity of diction they achieve in VW’s fast-moving setting of Whitman’s words. In the next movement, ‘Reconciliation’, we experience another consequence of the small choral forces. After the second baritone solo there’s a miraculous passage for unaccompanied choir (“Word over all, beautiful as the sky...”) Here the choir divides into eight parts and the most crucial part is the descant-like top soprano line. Here, I’m afraid the King’s top trebles come a distinct second best to the Bach Choir’s sopranos - and it’s not just a question of numbers.
In the last movement, ‘O man greatly beloved’, the mood changes to one of hope. The King’s choir starts off well enough but as the pace and intensity picks up – from “Open to me the gates of righteousness” onwards – they become less convincing. I’m afraid it sounds to me more like the performance of a vigorous anthem. I’m sorry to be so downbeat about the choral contribution. Stephen Cleobury is absolutely right to seek continuously to renew and expand the choir’s repertoire but I don’t think this is the right work for an all-male church choir. I can’t help thinking that the performance might have been much more convincing if King’s Voices, the College’s SATB choir, had been invited to participate as a joint enterprise.
Purchasers of this disc will hear two excellent soloists. Soprano Ailish Tynan is very convincing in her pleas for peace. As for baritone Roderick Williams, he is simply outstanding. The first baritone solo, ‘Reconciliation’, is marked dolce and that’s exactly what Williams delivers. His voice is silky smooth, yet firm and ideally focussed. As ever, this singer’s diction is crystal clear and he puts the words across with understanding and sensitivity. His is a different sound to that produced by some other baritones in this role, including the admirable Sir Thomas Allen on the very fine Mathew Best recording (review) or Matthew Brook on the David Hill recording; I greatly admired Williams’ way with this music. At the start of the last movement, Vaughan Williams uses the baritone to spin the whole work on its axis, away from tribulation towards hope. As the baritone sings “O man greatly beloved, fear not...” the listener can really take heart. Even Roderick Williams, for all his eloquence, might not convince Donald Trump that there is a better way but he certainly convinces me.
The King’s choir is on surer ground with Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. Their account of the first movement is lively and incisive though in the louder passages the chapel’s resonant acoustic slightly compromises the clarity of their singing. In the second movement George Hill is an excellent treble solo in the setting of Psalm 23; he and his colleagues put over the innocence of Bernstein’s music very well. The lines from Psalm 2 are suitably disruptive. Richard Gowers gives a fine account of the lengthy organ introduction to the final movement after which the lovely, flowing 10/4 setting of Psalm 131 is very persuasively sung. The hushed close is very well done. This is a fine account of Bernstein’s ever-fresh work.
It’s a pity that I can’t really recommend this performance of Dona nobis pacem but I simply don’t think it measures up to other accounts of this very fine work. The recordings by Matthew Best, David Hill and Richard Hickox (EMI) all give a much better representation of VW’s music. And, of course, there’s the composer’s own 1936 recording, which is required listening (review). However, I think that King’s College may have done a signal service by commissioning the reduced orchestration. I should like to hear it with an SATB choir of 50 or 60 singers before reaching a definitive verdict but Jonathan Rathbone may well have brought this great score within the affordable reach of many amateur choirs. King’s College choir will give what I think will be the first public performance of the Rathbone orchestration of Dona nobis pacem in a concert at The Barbican, London on 2 December. They’ll also perform the Chichester Psalms and will give the premiere of a new work, as yet untitled, it seems, by Emma Ruth Richards; this has been commissioned by the William Alwyn Foundation.
Anyone who buys this disc will find in the booklet a code to enable a free download of The Road Home by Stephen Paulus. I’m mystified that this wasn’t simply included on the disc since a playing time of under 52 minutes offers distinctly short measure.
I listened to this disc as an SACD and found the sound very good. The booklet contains a note by Jonathan Rathbone in which he discusses his orchestration. There’s also a very thoughtful essay by Edward Allen about both pieces though it’s unfortunate that one slip – the reference to Leonard Bernstein’s daughter, Jamie, using the masculine gender – was not spotted at the proof-reading stage.