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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (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 choral recordings that St John’s College Choir have released on this label so far have been uniformly excellent, and this is another golden string to add to their bow. They focus on the sacred music of Vaughan Williams, but add a layer to it by using it to focus on the composer’s experience of the Great War and, more broadly, on the theme of remembrance.

The booklet note points out that Vaughan Williams wrote most of his sacred music after having served as a wagon orderly on the Western Front, and that knowledge adds some poignancy to an understanding of his choral works. The G Minor Mass is famously influenced by the composer’s love of the English choral tradition, and specifically the music of the English Renaissance; but approaching it from this angle helps the listener to hear in it the music of remembrance and commemoration of Vaughan Williams’ colleagues, too. He and seven friends volunteered together, and six of them were killed, so the composer had his fair share of grief, and it doesn’t just come out in larger scale masterpieces like the Pastoral Symphony. The hanging suspensions and back-lit harmonies of the mass contain it too, and they’re brought to life beautifully here.

The recording, first of all, is marvellous, typically so from this source, and it allows the textures to shimmer in the mid-air. That’s true for the most obvious moments, such as the two halves of the choir communicating with one another, most obviously at the start of the Gloria. However, the soloists are also placed very thoughtfully into the overall texture. In the Christe, for example, they seem to hover above the choral background most beautifully, and Nethsingha experiments with placing them at relative differences for dramatic effect, something that I always found involving and never distracting.

More importantly, however, that magical recorded sound helps the whole work to glow. The alto line that introduces the Kyrie is ethereal and translucent, each subsequent entry building organically into something both structural and very beautiful. There is a gorgeous resonance to “Et in terra pax” at the start of the Gloria, and the treble who sings “Quoniam” is nothing short of angelic. There is a cascade of pendulum harmonies at the start of the Sanctus and a deeply felt Benedictus, but the work’s final bars are especially beautiful and, no doubt intentionally in this context, contain a hint of memorial in their poignancy, especially heartfelt in the plea for peace of “Dona nobis pacem.”

My previous go-to recording for this work was Richard Hickox’s great Chandos performance with his own mixed choir of adult singers, but this disc so impressed me as an overall package, complete with its unifying concept of remembrance, that I think it has replaced it.

The rest of the disc is every bit as well conceived and performed. The remaining works range between the celebratory and the contemplative. On the celebratory side, we get a Te Deum that is unusually exuberant for a Vaughan Williams choral work, and a brilliantly busy Let all the World. O Clap Your Hands is a delight, and I especially enjoyed the tinkling bells of the organ at the close. On the reflective side, O Vos Omnes is strangely pale sounding and poignant in its execution, while O Taste and See is beautiful in its simplicity next to the large scale Prayer to the Father of Heaven. The organ in Rhosymedre sounds warm and welcoming.

Marvellously, the disc ends with Lord, thou hast been our refuge, a work that sums up the sentiment of the whole disc. The remembrance aspect comes in with Vaughan Williams’ choice of text, setting Psalm 90 (from the Prayer Book translation) in tandem with Isaac Watts’ versification of it in O God, our help in ages past. It also acts as a reflection of Vaughan Williams’ work with the English choral tradition and, especially, his love of Hymns Ancient & Modern. It was new to me, but I found myself caught up in, with the spellbinding combination of the choral hymn tune and the modal church chant. The work’s climax involves a brilliant appearance from the St John’s organ, together with the radiant trumpet of David Blackadder, summing up with work’s prayerful intent and shining textures.

So this disc works beautifully as a thoughtful tour through Vaughan William’s church music, as well as providing a reflection on remembrance and, most poignantly, the Great War centenary. As I said, another golden string to St John’s’ bow.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: John Quinn

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