Friday 25 March 2022

Earth's Wide Bounds: William Vann & the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea in RVW's Communion Service in G minor

Earth's Wide Bounds - Vaughan Williams Communion Service, Te Deum in G, Valiant for Truth, Nocturne: By the Bivouac's Fitful Flame; William Vann and the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea; Albion Records
Earth's Wide Bounds
- Vaughan Williams Communion Service, Te Deum in G, Valiant for Truth, Nocturne: By the Bivouac's Fitful Flame; William Vann and the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea; Albion Records

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 25 March 2022 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The Anglican adaptation of RVW's Mass in G minor forms the centrepiece of this fine overview of the composer's Anglican sacred music, the familiar with a few unfamiliar items

The centrepiece of this disc, Earth's Wide Bounds, from William Vann and the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea is a work that many people were probably unaware existed, RVW's Communion Service in G minor. This latest disc from Albion Records features the choir's recordings of this alongside RVW's Te Deum in G, Valiant for Truth, and Nocturne: By the Bivouac's Fitful Flame along with a selection of RVW's finest hymns and shorter anthems. They are joined on the disc by organist Joshua Ryan and speaker Rowan Williams.

Whilst there is a long tradition of settings of the canticles for Matins and Evensong in the Anglican Church, a parallel tradition of settings of the Communion Service is less vigorous. Even for composers like Stanford, their Communion Service settings are rarely heard. The need for a specifically Anglican communion service setting arose because of the rubric in the Communion Service of the Book of Common Prayer. This dates back, essentially, to 1662 and the whole service is designed to have a greater focus on the word, and musical settings of the Ordinary are a nice to have (this is where the phrase 'in quires and places where they sing' comes from). And structurally there are differences.

So, after RVW wrote his Mass in G minor for RR Terry and the choir of Westminster Cathedral in 1910, it was the pianist, composer and conductor Maurice Jacobson (1896-1976) who produced the English version, with RVW revising it for publication in 1923. It is in English, of course, and the order of the movements is different with the Gloria coming at the end and there is an extra movement. Every communion service based on 1662 was supposed to begin with a recitation of the Ten Commandments, each with sung responses. This was the only new music in the piece. Whilst it was used, this version probably never had really wide currency and nowadays 'in quires and places where they sing', the use of the original Latin version is assumed.

We begin with the Ten Commandments and the whole five minute movement works well because Rowan Williams is one of those speakers who could probably read a laundry list and make it compelling. Here his beautifully mellifluous account of the commandments is complemented by the choir's measured responses. The music then unfolds in familiar fashion, albeit with English words. The first thing to be said is that the choir's diction is superb, we can hear virtually every word. The forces used are double choir with four soloists, the latter taken by a roster of soloists from the choir. Everyone sings strongly, there is a refreshing vigour and strength to this performance. Phrasing is beautifully well formed and there are finely intimate moments but Vann manages create a performance which combines those two elements of RVW, the vigorous and robust, the man who went for long, long walks with his friend Holst, and the English mystic whose music manages to take the listener into other realms.

Around this the choir sings a selection of RVW's sacred music, we begin with the Te Deum in G, written for the enthronement of the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1928. It is a firmly vigorous piece, written to be sung by a double choir rather than the congregation and RVW uses plenty of antiphonal effects. For all the complexity there is an admirable directness to it. We also have some of RVW's smaller anthems, O Clap your hands (written for Westminster Abbey in 1920), O taste and see (written for the 1953 Coronation), Prayer to the Father in Heaven (written for a celebration of Parry's Centenary in 1948) and the choral version of the final Antiphon from Five Mystical Songs, alongside a selection of RVW's hymns.

Now, William Vann and his singers have probably performed this music countless times, yet they bring a lovely freshness to the whole repertoire. This is a choir of women and men (24 singers in total), and there is never any doubt about that. They make a good, firm, well-formed sound and create the impression that, as an ensemble, they have been singing this music for ever. The secret with performing any piece of liturgical music whether Byrd, RVW or Stravinsky is to create the impression that the choir has been singing this music daily for ever, and that is what happens here. 

You, perhaps, never thought you needed a selection of RVW's hymns but this disc will change your mind. The hymns are such terrific pieces, complex enough to be viable as simple anthems yet with a vigour and directness that allows for congregational enjoyment, Oh and some terrific tunes that benefit from the care and attention that Vann and his singers bring to them. And three are performed with descants from the Novello Book of Descants

There are three novelties. The first two shouldn't be a novelties. A Prayer to the Father in Heaven is a terrific piece of late RVW, quiet, mystical and evoking many other works. And RVW's 1940 setting of text from part two of Pilgrim's Progress, Valiant-for-Truth is by no means as well known as it should be. And then we get RVW's early Walt Whitman setting, Nocturne: By the Bivouac's Fitful Flame, probably written in 1904/1906 but found in his manuscripts after his death.

This was a disc that, when I first picked it up, I wondered whether I needed it at all but after the first listen I was convinced. It encapsulates the RVW who was able to tune in to the needs of the Anglican church and produce music that combined vividness, directness and mysticism in just the right combination.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) - Te Deum in G [6’47]
Ralph Vaughan Williams - For All the Saints Who from Their Labours Rest [4’23]
Ralph Vaughan Williams - O Clap Your Hands [3’06]
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Monk's Gate: He Who Would Valiant Be [2’00]
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Communion Service in G Minor (adapted by Maurice Jacobson) [29’37]
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Kingsfold: I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say [2’15]
Ralph Vaughan Williams - O Taste and See [1’25]
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Picardy: Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence [3’03]
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Prayer to the Father of Heaven [5’25]
Ralph Vaughan Williams - King’s Lynn: O God of Earth and Altar [2’12]
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Antiphon: Let All the World in Every Corner Sing [3’07]
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Down Ampney: Come Down, O Love Divine [3’16]
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Valiant-for-Truth [5’50]
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Nocturne: By the Bivouac's Fitful Flame [5’39]
Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea
Joshua Ryan (organ)
Rowan Williams (speaker)
William Vann (director)
Recorded at St. Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London on 22–23 October 2020 and 17 June 2021

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