Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Earth’s Wide Bounds
Dr Rowan Williams (speaker)
Leah Jackson (soprano)
Joshua Ryan (organ)
Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea/William Vann
rec. 2020/21, St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London
ALBION RECORDS ALBCD051 [78:05]
This enterprising release from Albion Records contains a discerningly chosen mixture of familiar and unfamiliar music. When I received the disc, I imagined that the primary focus of my review would be the premiere recording of the English language version of the Mass in G minor, but we’ll come to that in a minute.
I’d like to start, though, by considering the very last piece on the programme: Nocturne: By the Bivouac’s Fitful Flame. Not only is this receiving its first recording; Albion believe that it may never have been performed prior to the recording sessions. As you’ll have guessed from the title, it’s a setting of lines by Walt Whitman; it may be one of the very first that VW made. The origins of the piece are of particular interest. John Francis tells us in his scrupulously researched and informative notes, that VW composed a Ballade and Scherzo for string quintet in 1904. He revisited this work in 1906, writing a completely new Scherzo and revising the Ballade, which he renamed Nocturne. Reference in the notes to a 2002 recording of the string quintet version by the Nash Ensemble sent me scurrying off to the VW section of my collection. Sure enough, the piece appears on an invaluable Hyperion set of VW’s early chamber music (review). Listening a couple of times to the two versions one after the other was fascinating. John Francis describes the choral piece as “a version” of the Nocturne. I haven’t seen scores of either piece but, from listening, I’m pretty sure that the choral piece is not a note-for-note transcription. For example, in the middle of the Nocturne there’s some really intense quick music which works extremely well on five stringed instruments but which is not really suited to vocal performance. That said, there’s sufficient similarity that the two pieces are recognisably cut from the same stock.
VW enthusiasts who have the instrumental version will find it fascinating to hear what VW made of it as a choral piece. In the Hyperion notes, Michael Kennedy made this comment: “The Nocturne is what Holst would have called ‘the real RVW’”. He went on to reference the slow movement of A London Symphony. I’d not read his remarks when I first heard the choral piece: in it I hear pre-echoes of the choral writing which was shortly to come in Toward the Unknown Region and A Sea Symphony. It doesn’t seem to be entirely certain when VW made this choral version, but the inference is that it was around 1906. It’s scored for unaccompanied double choir (SSAATTBB). The harmonic writing becomes increasingly intense as the work unfolds; indeed, the harmonies seem to me to be quite advanced when compared to VW’s previous choral compositions. It’s a most interesting piece. I’m delighted it has seen the light of day - and in such an excellent performance as this one.
The Communion Service in G minor is an English version of the great Mass in G minor (1921); it has never been recorded in this version before. The adaptation, which was designed for liturgical use, was made in 1923 by the composer and conductor, Maurice Jacobson (1896-1976). Presumably, VW approved of this because he revised Jacobson’s work before the Communion Service was published. I think the adaptation works very well, though those who know the Mass will notice that to meet then-current liturgical practice, the Gloria was placed at the end of the setting. (It seems odd to hear music after the Agnus Dei.) The Service is preceded by the recitation of the Ten Commandments from the Book of Common Prayer. The Commandments are read by Dr Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. His excellently modulated delivery strikes me as ideal. Each Commandment is followed by a brief sung response.
The performance of the music is absolutely superb. All the movements with the exception of the Sanctus include parts for a solo quartet. William Vann has drawn a separate quartet from his choir for each such movement, meaning that we hear no less than 20 solo voices. Such is the quality of the choir that no matter who forms the quartet, the standard of singing is uniformly excellent. The choir responds to every facet of the music expertly. The full-throated passages in the Creed and Gloria are sung in a fervent fashion. Even more impressive are the many passages of soft singing: the hushed passage in the Creed, beginning at ‘Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven’ is particularly special. In this wonderful score, VW reaches back across the centuries to pay homage to the Tudor masters, just as he did in the ‘Tallis’ Fantasia; whether the words are in Latin or English, the homage is equally memorable. Memorable, too, is this performance. William Vann controls the flow of the music in a most understanding fashion; he and his singers display scrupulous attention to detail. Right now, I can’t recall hearing a finer performance of VW’s G minor masterpiece.
All the other choral pieces are just as successful. The Te Deum in G was written for the enthronement of Cosmo Lang as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1928. Its an excellent piece. Appropriately for such an occasion, much of the writing is extrovert but this doesn’t preclude some more reflective episodes. O Clap Your Hands follows a similar pattern: mainly jubilant but with a more thoughtful interlude at its centre. O Taste and See, a little gem composed for the 1953 Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, features a pure, clear soloist in Leah Jackson. Prayer to the Father of Heaven was composed to mark the centenary of the birth of VW’s teacher, Parry and it bears a heartfelt dedication to Parry’s memory. I’m not sure this piece is often performed but it deserves to be widely known. The writing for a cappella choir is quite marvellous, the harmonies mysterious. It receives an ideal performance here.
‘Antiphon: Let All the World in Every Corner Sing’, the last of the Five Mystical Songs, scarcely needs an introduction. It’s splendidly articulated here, not only by the choir but also by organist Joshua Ryan. Valiant-for-Truth is a mini-masterpiece. For his text VW turned to his beloved Pilgrim’s Progress and set Bunyan’s words to music of great eloquence. William Vann paces the music perfectly, allowing the narrative to unfold very naturally. It’s a challenging work to pull off, not so much because the notes are difficult but because everything needs to be fitted together seamlessly and an otherworldly atmosphere established. Vann’s choir are ideally equipped for the assignment.
To complete the programme, we’re offered a selection of VW’s hymns from The English Hymnal (1906). The tune ‘Kingsfold’, used for I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say, is a slight adaptation of ‘Dives and Lazarus. For Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence VW selected a traditional French tune, hence the title ‘Picardy’. O God of Earth and Altar, the words to which are by G K Chesterton, employs a traditional tune which VW collected in the Norfolk town of King’s Lynn. His adaptation of another English folk tune, as ‘Monk’s Gate’, is even more successful. But the two most memorable hymns included here are sung to original tunes which VW composed for The English Hymnal. He named ‘Down Ampney’ for the Gloucestershire village in which he was born. What a wonderful tune it is, fitting the words like a glove. The melodic phrase to which VW sets the fourth line of each stanza (for example, ‘O Comforter, draw near’) seems to me to be especially expressive and memorable. In this performance the final verse is graced by a descant by Christopher Robinson. That’s also the case with ‘Sine nomine’. Surely this superb rolling tune is VW’s greatest single contribution to English hymnody. My eyebrow was slightly raised by William Vann’s brisk speed. I know there are eight verses – though these are nicely varied – but this was, after all, designated a Processional hymn. At this quick speed one wonders if these saints aren’t trying to catch up with the rest of the heavenly host! Christopher Robinson’s descant is splendid.
This is a marvellous disc in every respect. Every piece in the programme is a choice example of VW’s choral music. The performances are consistently superb. I’ve previously commented on the exceptionally high standard of the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea. When one looks at the list of singers (7/5/5/6) and spots names that frequently appear on the roster of ensembles such as Stile Antico and The Tallis Scholars, one shouldn’t be surprised at their excellence. However, William Vann has knitted these highly accomplished voices into a wonderfully flexible yet disciplined group. Blend, balance and attention to detail are all of the highest order, as is the crystal-clear diction. Incidentally, as a booklet photo makes clear, the sessions took place under the rigours of “social distancing “- a ghastly term, if ever there was one. That must place extra demands on the musicians in terms of balance and precision of ensemble: from these performances one would not know. Joshua Ryan offers excellent contributions from the organ console.
Albion’s presentation standards are very high. Producer Andrew Walton and engineer Deborah Spanton have recorded the music quite beautifully. As usual, the booklet is exemplary. John Francis’s notes are a mine of information and insight.
It would not surprise me if this is the finest VW disc I hear during the composer’s 150th anniversary year.
Previous review: John France
Te Deum in G (1928) [6:47]
For All the Saints Who from Their Labours Rest (1906) [4:23]
O Clap Your Hands (1920) [3:06]
Monk’s Gate: He Who Would Valiant Be (1906) [2:00]
Communion Service (Mass) in G minor (1922/1923), adapted by Maurice Jacobson (1896-1976) [29:37]
Kingsfold: I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say (1906) [2:15]
O Taste and See (1952) [1:25]
Picardy: Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence (1906) [3:03]
Prayer to the Father of Heaven (1948) [5:25]
King’s Lynn: O God of Earth and Altar (1906) [2:12]
Antiphon: Let All the World in Every Corner Sing (1911) [3:07]
Down Ampney: Come Down, O Love Divine (1906) [3:16]
Valiant-for-Truth (1940) [5:50]
Nocturne: By the Bivouac’s Fitful Flame (1904/1906) [5:39]