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Ralph VAUGHAN WILIAMS (1872-1958)
Mass in G minor (1920-21) [25:55]
Te Deum in G (1928) [7:44]
O vos omnes (1922) [5:59]
Antiphon (Five Mystical Songs) (1911) [3:15]
Rhosymedre (1920) [4:40]
O taste and see (1952) [1:46]
Prayer to the Father of Heaven (1948) [5:39]
O, clap your hands (1920) [3:20]
Lord, thou hast been our refuge (1921) [9:17]
Joseph Wicks (organ)
David Blackadder (trumpet)
The Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge/Andrew Nethsingha
rec. 2017, Chapel of St John’s College, Cambridge
Texts & English translations included

The booklet accompanying this CD contains two excellent essays. Ceri Owens contributes notes about the pieces while Andrew Nethsingha offers a set of stimulating Conductor’s Reflections. Mr Nethsingha writes very persuasively of the impact that the First World War had on VW and in that context it’s no accident that the booklet cover carries an image of the poppy. Nethsingha quotes the most moving passage in that wonderful prayer which Eric Milner-White penned for the inaugural Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge in 1918, the section that calls to mind “all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore…” Those words, which never fail to move me, are still used at the service 100 years later and it’s salutary to be reminded of them as we approach the end of the years in which we’ve been commemorating the centenary of the Great War.

Nethsingha does well to draw to our attention ways in which at times the Mass in G minor may well reflect VW’s response to the Great War in the same way that the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony did. He also makes an important point in referencing the effect of VW’s studies with Ravel on his vocal music. It’s easy enough for us to think of the Ravelian influence on VW’s orchestral and chamber music but the influence on his vocal music is perhaps less obvious.

Mr Nethsingha describes the Mass in G minor as “one of the great British liturgical masterpieces of the twentieth century”. How I agree, though might I respectfully suggest that the last four words of his phrase could be removed? It’s a magnificent work in which VW’s debt to and admiration of Tudor polyphony find radiant, inspired expression. Yet the work is no mere pastiche: just as he did in the ‘Tallis Fantasia’ Vaughan Williams refracts Tudor influences through a very definite early-twentieth century lens. The present performance is worthy of the work’s stature. The singing throughout is refined and, where called for, fervent. The recording distinguishes in an ideal but not exaggerated fashion between the two choirs. Nethsingha adds a refinement of his own: at various points in the score VW includes parts for up to four solo voices and Nethsingha positions these singers remotely from the rest of the ensemble. I find this very effective indeed. Incidentally, a variety of singers are used for these solo parts; Nethsingha doesn’t restrict himself to the same four voices and all do well. I enjoyed and admired this excellent performance.

It’s good to find O vos omnes on the programme too. It’s all-but contemporaneous with the Mass and in many respects the music breathes the same spirt. Thus, I think it was sensible not to have this small work immediately after the Mass on the disc. Upper voices carry the music until the last couple of minutes. When VW finally adds tenors and basses to the mix, thereby darkening the colour, we discover that it was a masterly decision to hold back these voices for so long.

Not everything on the programme is contemplative in nature. Antiphon (‘Let all the world in every corner sing’) receives a performance that is full of vitality and the performance of O, clap your hands is similarly exciting. The singing has genuine fervour and Joseph Wicks makes a spectacular contribution on the organ, especially in the closing bars.

Wicks was the Assistant Organist at St John’s at the time of making this recording. The sessions came right at the end of his tenure: he has since moved on to succeed Luke Bond as Assistant Director of Music at Truro Cathedral. He makes fine contributions to several of the choral pieces and he also gets his moment in the sun with a solo piece, VW’s lovely Prelude on Rhosymedre. It’s a piece that I like very much and it’s very well done here.

A couple of the pieces come from the post-Second World war period. The delectable O taste and see was composed for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The exposed treble solo is sung confidently and with pure tone by Alfred Harrison. Prayer to the Father of Heaven is far too little known. It was written as a tribute to Parry on the 150th anniversary of his birth and it’s a very worthy tribute. Ceri Owens writes that “it is indeed difficult to discern the influence of Parry’s music here.” I’d agree up to a point. The melodic lines and the harmonic writing are very different to Parry. Yet I feel that, especially in the music to which VW set the last stanza of John Skelton’s poem, we hear the same intensity of expression that is heard in Parry’s masterly Songs of Farewell, especially the last couple of them where the choir is split into seven and eight parts. In that respect there is, to my ears a definite affinity there between Parry and VW’s piece.

The programme began with an indisputable masterpiece in the shape of the Mass in G minor. One might not confer quite the same stature on Lord, thou hast been our refuge but I still esteem it very highly indeed: it’s VW in his visionary mode. The present performance is very fine indeed, right from the start where the distancing between the chanting solo voices (in the foreground) and the choir singing the chorale at more of a distance is expertly achieved. The singing throughout is highly expressive. As with VW holding back the tenors and basses in O vos omnes, here he holds back the instruments and to excellent effect. The addition of the organ, majestic here, and David Blackadder‘s silvery trumpet produces a genuine frisson. The last couple of lines of the Psalm (“And the glorious Majesty of the Lord….”) are sung with great fervour, but also fine control, and the piece – and the programme as a whole – thereby achieves a superb conclusion.

This is a very fine disc indeed. Andrew Nethsingha has chosen the music with great discernment and conducts it with evident commitment and understanding. The choir sings marvellously from start to finish. Sometimes I find that on recordings of all-male choirs the trebles are wont to pitch their notes ‘in the crack’. That’s emphatically not the case here; intonation is true at all times and trebles’ tone gives great pleasure. The adult singers are excellent too. I’ve already commented on the very good documentation. The recorded sound is impressive: the choir is heard clearly and with just the right amount of ambience round the voices while the distancing effects are expertly managed. The St John’s organ makes a thrilling sound and is well balanced with the choir. The only thing I would say is that on a couple of tracks involving the organ – the Te Deum and O, clap your hands – I noted some background ambience before and after the music. This didn’t trouble me greatly but, so far as I can recall, it’s not something I’ve noticed on other recordings from this source.

John Quinn


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