Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Dona Nobis Pacem (1936) [35:58]
Five Mystical Songs (1911) [30:29]
Edith Wiens (soprano); Brian Rayner-Cook (baritone)
London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra/Bryden Thomson
rec. 1988, St Jude’s Church, London NW11
CHANDOS CHAN8590 [56:36]
Not long ago, I reviewed the cycle of Vaughan Williams symphonies that Bryden Thomson set down for Chandos between 1987 and 1990. Most of those recordings had not previously been appraised here because they were released before MusicWeb International was founded in 1995. I was impressed with Thomson’s performances and that led me on to investigate his other Chandos recordings of orchestral music by VW (review ~ review). That left just one more recording: his coupling of these two vocal works. I heard the disc not long after it was released and it’s been interesting to return to it nearly thirty years later.
It used to be thought that the Fourth symphony was heavily influenced by the alarming political developments in Europe in the early 1930s though it’s now more widely believed that this was not the case. A far more convincing case, surely, can be made for the cantata Dona Nobis Pacem as VW’s expression of grave concern at what was going on in the world around him. The piece was written for the centenary of the Huddersfield Choral Society in 1936. The composer didn’t conduct the premiere – that was entrusted to Albert Coates – but a few weeks later he conducted a BBC broadcast in which the original soloists took part. That performance is available on CD and is strongly recommended to anyone with an interest in the work, especially since the transfer issued by SOMM is so good (review). I think Dona Nobis Pacem is not only one of VW’s finest choral works but, more than that, one of his finest achievements in any genre. The text, which blends words from a variety of sources, including the Old Testament and VW’s beloved Walt Whitman, is discerningly chosen and the music to which VW set the words is by turns, powerful and movingly lyrical.
Returning now to Bryden Thomson’s recording after many years, I found a great deal to admire in it. There isn’t a weak link among the performers. The Canadian soprano, Edith Wiens, sings really well. She’s beautifully expressive in the quieter episodes in which she’s involved, such as the opening of the work, but she can also surmount the loudest ensemble with ardent pleas for peace. Brian Rayner-Cook, who has rather more to do, also does well, while the London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra certainly deliver the goods.
Thomson proves a sure-footed guide to the score. In the second section, ‘Beat! Beat! Drums’ his performance conveys the brazen frenzy of Whitman’s lines that VW translated so vividly into music. There’s great presence and impact in the Chandos recording and though the music is often tumultuous I was delighted by the amount of orchestral detail that emerges, as well as the clarity of the voice parts. ‘Reconciliation’, the movement that follows, includes a major solo for the baritone. Brian Rayner-Cook does not disappoint; his way with the music is elevated and he shows a very good feeling for the musical line. I enjoyed his contribution. However, you may find, as I did, that other soloists offer a bit more. Both Bryn Terfel, in the 1992 Richard Hickox recording for EMI, and, even more so, Sir Thomas Allen in a 1993 Hyperion recording conducted by Matthew Best (review) have, I think, richer toned voices than Rayner-Cook and they make more of the words.
The next section of Dona Nobis Pacem is a slow funeral march. Again, the words are by Whitman, depicting the evening burial of two soldiers, father and son, who have fallen in battle alongside each other. Thomson builds the music very well indeed as the procession draws closer to the onlooker (the poet). The music is extremely powerful and it brings out the best in both the choir and orchestra in this performance. Eventually (at 5:55) the orchestra, topped off by majestic brass, takes over from the choir and brings the march to a big climax; hereabouts the Chandos engineers give us an excellent sense of the brass in the resonant acoustic of St Jude’s Church. The much more subdued conclusion to the movement is poetically handled by Thomson and sensitively played and sung.
VW then gradually achieves a remarkable change of mood. Firstly, the baritone sings words from the speech against the Crimean War which John Bright delivered in the House of Commons in February, 1855: ‘The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land…’ Picking up this highly charged, troubled frame of mind the chorus has words from the Prophet Jeremiah, ‘We looked for peace, but no good came…’ Thomson and his performers imbue all this music with the requisite tension. And then VW pivots to a mood of hope as the baritone sings words from another Old Testament prophet, Daniel: ‘O man, greatly beloved, fear not’. From now on both words and music radiate hope. Thomson’s performance is very successful and I particularly appreciate the way he and the Chandos engineers achieve significant clarity amid the increasingly jubilant counterpart of the choral parts. The very end of the work, where VW expresses hushed prayerfulness, is very well brought off. Overall, I think Bryden Thomson makes a fine job of Dona Nobis Pacem, leading a performance that confirms the eloquence and stature of the work.
His coupling is a very different sort of work: the much earlier Five Mystical Songs. Very broadly speaking, there are two different approaches to this work on disc. Sir David Willcocks’ justly famous recording with John Shirley-Quirk uses the choir of King’s College, Cambridge and is, therefore, rather small-scale. Bryden Thomson, on the other hand, uses a full-sized choir. Both approaches are entirely valid. Occupying something of a middle ground is Matthew Best in his very fine 1990 recording which features Sir Thomas Allen (review). Best’s Corydon Singers is not as large a choir as Thomson has at his disposal but I believe they’re all professional singers and they make quite a big sound.
Brian Rayner-Cook is Thomson’s soloist once again. In the first song, ‘Easter’, the benefits of his clear, well-focused voice are immediately apparent. As was the case in Dona Nobis Pacem, his diction is admirable. The choir and orchestra are impressive, too, and I especially appreciate the sensitivity which all concerned bring to the passage that begins at ‘Awake, my lute’. There follows a lovely, lyrical reading of the second song, ‘I got me flowers’. However, when I turned to Sir Thomas Allen, I was reminded just how excellent he is in these songs. I think his singing is more characterful than Rayner-Cook’s and in this second song he’s particularly memorable in the passage beginning ‘Can there be any day but this…’
The third song. ‘Love bade me welcome’ is marked dolce; indeed, that marking recurs several times. Rayner-Cook and Thomson certainly obey that injunction. It’s a wonderful song and VW’s response to George Herbert’s words is exceptionally sensitive. Arguably, the most memorable episode in the entre set of songs comes in the passage where the chorus wordlessly sings the old ‘O Sacrum Convivium’ melody over which the soloist sings the exquisite lines beginning ‘You must sit down, says Love’. The Chandos performance is marvellous at this point, the orchestral sound wonderfully subdued. However. Thomas Allen is absolutely outstanding in this song. He draws the listener in with his gentle, expressive singing, superbly supported by Best, and then the performance achieves heart-stopping, subdued beauty at ‘You must sit down, says Love’. Unforgettable. In ‘The Call’ I very much admired Brian Rayner-Cook’s fine, smooth line. That’s the soloist’s last appearance in the work because the last song, ‘Antiphon’ is for choir and orchestra. For the most part, it’s a robust, jubilant setting although there are some quieter passages for contrast. Thomson’s account of it is a fine one. My allegiance to the Thomas Allen/Matthew Best recording remains unshaken but this Rayner-Cook/Thomson recording runs it close. I was delighted to renew its acquaintance and I’m sure I will return to it with pleasure in the future.
This disc contains two of Vaughan Williams’ finest vocal works and both receive excellent performances. The disc offers the final proof – if proof were needed by now – that Bryden Thomson was a very considerable conductor of this composer’s music. His death in 1991 at the age of just 63 was a sad and premature loss. I just wish there’d been time for him to record one or two more works by VW: I have in mind particularly Hodie and, above all, Sancta Civitas. I’m not sure that Chandos have ever had recordings of either of those two works in their catalogue. Might they be able to persuade Sir Andrew Davis to record them in time for the VW 150th anniversary in 2022? Both scores would benefit from Chandos engineering.
And speaking of engineering, I’ve been delighted to discover how well these present recordings have stood up to the test of time. It may be thirty-two years since these sessions took place but you would never know. The sound is full, detailed and, where appropriate, packs a punch. There’s a very good dynamic range to the sound, which is vital in scores such as these. The recording was produced by the late Brian Couzens and engineered by Ralph Couzens. Their work has done full justice to Bryden Thomson’s estimable performances.