Friday, 18 May 2018

Transcendent mysticism: Vaughan Williams' Mass from St John's College

Vaughan Williams: Mass in G minor - Choir of St John's College, Cambridge - Signum
Vaughan Williams Mass in G minor, sacred choral works; Choir of St John's College Cambridge, Andrew Nethsingha; Signum Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 1 May 2018 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
RVW's mass in a thoughtful and revealing performance

For their latest recording on the St John's College imprint on Signum Classics, Andrew Nethsingha and the choir of St John's College have turned their attention to RVW's Mass in G minor, a work which the choir apparently has not recorded before, as part of an all RVW disc which includes other sacred music much of it written around the same period as the mass, the Te Deum in G, O vos omnes, Antiphon, Rhosymedre, O taste and see, Prayer to the Father of Heaven, O clap you hands and Lord, thou hast been our Refuge.

In his illuminating booklet article, Andrew Nethsingha talks about RVW's turning to sacred music as part of a reaction to the events of World War 1 [see my interview with Andrew Nethsingha], and it is perhaps no coincidence that three of the greatest 20th century European settings of the mass were written in the same period, the masses by RVW & Frank Martin and the Requiem by Ildebrando Pizzetti. Nethsingha also talks about re-assessing RVW's sacred choral music, and it is clear from listening to this disc that Nethsingha has thought deeply about the music, not just in the way it fits in with RVW's output from the same period but also in the way that it might be performed.

The principal feature of the mass on this disc seems to be its spaciousness and a relaxed sense, Nethsingha talks about RVW's exploration of music which was not goal-directed and in his performance, Nethsingha is clearly not attempting to drive the music where it does not wish to go. That is not to say it lacks impetus, far from it, but he also gives the music space to breath and takes a relaxed view of tempo and rubato. This is combined with a very fine-grained elegant performance from the choir, the opening 'Kyrie' starts on just a thread almost as if you are coming upon the choir from a distance.

In my interview with Andrew Nethsingha, he talked about his inspiration in the way RVW wrote for Gloucester Cathedral (where Nethsingha previously worked), and on this disc he has similarly used the chapel at St John's to orchestrate the music, particularly with the way the soloists are treated and the result brings a real dynamism to the performance.

The choir is in very fine form indeed, giving us some lovely elegant lines and delicate textures, yet also moments of great power and intensity. This is a very dynamic performance, as they follow Nethsingha's fluid direction. One aspect of the result is that it highlights the other influences on the work; whilst RVW's debt to Tudor polyphony is clear, there are many more 20th century influences too which come out here.

The mass is accompanied by a very fine selection of RVW's sacred music. The earliest piece is the Antiphon from the Five Mystical Songs (from 1911) which receives a vibrantly upfront performance. Rhosymedre (from 1920) is one of RVW's small output for organ. O clap your hands (1920) dating from 1920, the first of a group of motets which RVW wrote after the first war, receives a wonderfully joyful performance. O vos omnes (1922) dates from around the period of the mass and seems to live in the same soundworld, here in an evocative and mystical performance.


The Te Deum in G is RVW in far more congregational and public mode, robust and resonant, the work was written for the enthronement of Cosmo Lang as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1928. There are two later pieces, Prayer to the Father of Heaven, setting John Skelton in far different mode to the Five Tudor Portraits, was composed for the centenary of Hubert Parry in 1948 but is wonderful pure late RVW with little Parry, and O Taste and See which was composed for the 1952 Coronation and is notable for the elegant and fine-grained solo.

The disc finishes with another work from the early 1920s, Lord, thou hast been our Refuge (1921) a fascinating work in which RVW combines the metrical version of Psalm 90 by Isaac Watts (sung to the hymn tune 'St Anne') with a lovely plainchant-esque setting of the original Psalm. The result is profoundly affecting and very moving, one of RVW's most striking large-scale sacred works.

I really enjoyed the way Andrew Nethsingha and his choir have re-thought the way they perform RVW's music, but for me, the great virtues of the disc are the way it brings RVW's into a different focus yet also emphasises the transcendent mysticism which is the essential core to the music.

The choir is celebrating the release of this disc on 18 May 2018 with Evensong at St John's College, Cambridge in which Andrew Nethsingha and the choir will be performing works from the album. Further details from the St John's Choir website and the service will also be live-streamed.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) - Mass in G minor
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Te Deum
Ralph Vaughan Williams - O vos omnes
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Antiphon
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Rhosymedre
Ralph Vaughan Williams - O taste and see
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Prayer to the Father of Heaven
Ralph Vaughan Williams - O, clap your hands
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Lo, thou has been our refuge
The choir of St John's College, Cambridge
Joseph Wicks (organ)
David Blackadder (trumpet)
Andrew Nethsingha (conductor)
Recorded in St John's College Chapel, Cambridge,  17-20 July 2017
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD541
Available from Amazon.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Te Deum: Purcell & Charpentier at Westminster Abbey for London Festival of Baroque Music (★★★★) - Concert review
  • All-star Orfeo - Iestyn Davies and Sophie Bevan at the London Festival of Baroque Music (★★★★)  - Concert review
  • Sonorous debut: Neil Ferris & Sonoro in Frank Martin & James MacMillan (★★★★) - CD review
  • Gilbert & Cellier: A work of real musical personality, The Mountebanks rediscovered  (★★★★) - CD review
  • Vivica Genaux & Sonia Prina recreate the music sung by two great castratos at the Wigmore Hall  (★★★★) - concert review
  • The story of a journey: Roderick Williams & Christopher Glynn in Schubert's Winter Journey  (★★★★★) - CD review
  • Welcome to the Magical Garden or perhaps the Garden of Magic: the piano music of Robert Saxton (★★★★) - CD review
  • Philip Venables' 4:48 Psychosis returns (★★★★) - Opera review
  • Thrilling revival: Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at Covent Garden (★★★★★) - Opera review
  • Striking double in Clapham: Shadwell Opera debuts a new work with powerful Janacek song-cycle (★★★½) - opera review
  • Music from Handel's London Theatre Orchestra (★★★★)  - CD review
  • Passio: from Tallis & Purcell to Kevin Hartnett via Bach (★★★)  - CD review
  • Out of the parlour and into the recital room - Hubert Parry's English lyrics (★★★★)  -  CD review
  • Beethoven unbound and Schubert cycles, I chat to Welsh pianist Llŷr Williams - interview
  • Bernstein, Debussy, Parry, Smyth, Bridge, Boulanger, Owen - BBC Proms 2018 - preview
  • Home

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