The Mass in G minor is part perhaps of VW's "neglected" works. That's quite unfair because it is one of his supreme compositions : It is a creation of such magnitude and novelty that there was possibly no equivalent in the twentieth century, as far as choral music is concerned. The opus was dedicated to the composer's well-known fellow Gustav Holst and his student choir, the wondrous Whitsuntide Singers--eventually recognized as "some of Britain's finest singers." Barry Creasy, chairman of the Collegium Musicum of London, observed that "it is justly described as the first `English' Mass setting since the sixteenth century and the time of Byrd and Tallis." Herbert Howells's Mass in the Dorian Mode predates Vaughan Williams's G minor by over a decade ; the work was first heard at Westminster Cathedral in November 1912. Still, as Andrew Carwood justly remarked, in his notes about VW's Mass, "Howells wrote his Mass in the Dorian Mode in 1912 but more as an exercise in polyphonic writing than a serious original composition. Thus it could be argued that Vaughan Williams's Mass in G minor of 1922 was the first substantial, unaccompanied setting to be written with a distinctly English voice since the time of William Byrd in the sixteenth century." In fact, the work mingles at once old and new architectural methods, harmonically, and seems to be in convergence with "modern" or "contemporary" forms of expression--as encountered now in some of Arvo Part's pieces. Quite possibly some orchestrations of the minimalist sort, as heard nowadays, owes much to composers like Finzi and Vaughan Williams... The Mass in G minor might have helped define a "new trend" in English choral music--consciously or not, as illustrated eloquently through a number of sacred and secular works from Edmund Rubbra and John Rutter. I absolutely agree with the author Julia E.T. Bailey who wrote that "this piece was one of the pioneers in the rebirth of the a cappella music tradition." Bailey, who works at the Royal Academy of Arts, gives an utterly interesting look at British composers in her essay talking about the impact of the Great War on British Music.
Aaron Green (B.A. in Music degree, cum laude), writer for [...], rightly observed that "Ralph Vaughan Williams was a 20th century composer, yet this mass sounds almost baroque to an untrained ear. Composed 1921, Vaughan Williams's Mass reverted to the `old school' tradition of a cappella polyphonic style - a breakthrough in modern composition." Not closely associated with the church, Vaughan Williams was described by his wife Ursula as "a cheerful agnostic." Yet, he had a profound empathy for church music. Moreover, the "design" of the work was deliberately archaic, necessarily pointing to its basic source. It was devised for four soloists (SATB*) and double mixed chorus. Richard Terry and his famous choir at Westminster Cathedral gave the first liturgic performance in March of 1923. (*SATB = Soprano/Alto/Tenor/Baritone)
For conductor, scholar and singer of fame Andrew Carwood, "this duality between the `modern idiom' and the `old liturgical spirit' lies at the heart of the composition's success. It takes as its starting point the sound world of the sixteenth century with its modal writing and subtle imitation. The Mass seems to reach back to a long-forgotten world, yet it is not some atavistic exercise but new music, colored by Vaughan Williams's love of rich harmonies and made more dramatic by the juxtaposition of sinuous Gregorian-like lines with blazing choral antiphony. These effects are achieved by a scoring very similar to the Tallis Fantasia." The work is simultaneously complex and simple. There's a modesty in the design, a sort of reserve, which certainly translates a trait of the composer's personality. Perhaps more than in any other work, the composer had succeeded with the Mass in reflecting his spirit, with a look back at the many losses left behind the Great War. I'll quote again Julia E.T. Bailey : "For English music, the principle result of World War One was a retreat into the past. English composers were keen to distance themselves from musical styles adopted from their Teutonic cousins and instead returned to the only genre that they knew for sure to be solely English - folk music. Composers in this type became known as the `Pastoral School'. In many ways they were indebted to the war and also the Irish revolution, for without them there would not have been such a withdrawal into bygone English music and in all probability the country would never have reclaimed a separate identity from Germany. But inspired by intense patriotism and a desire to escape from the present political climate, English music underwent something of a Renaissance, in which "folk-song was to be the salvation" (ref. Stradling and Hughes, 1993). Also revived was the music of sixteenth-century English composers, such as Thomas Tallis, William Byrd and Thomas Weelkes. The twentieth-century composers did not directly duplicate their work, but rather combined music theory learnt since then and a particularly strong influence of modern music with the Renaissance style." The sound of such works as the Tallis Fantasia and the Mass in G minor is almost unique in modern music. The rich polyphonic expression found in those works wasn't replicated by the great Elgar, and even Britten did not merely approach that genre--not even in his most famous works such as the War Requiem.
I will quote Mary W. Helms, secretary for the Summit Chorale at Drew University : "In the Mass, Vaughan Williams applies modes to consecutive triads with consequent occurrence of the parallel fifths and false relations characteristic of pre-classical English composers. However, in spite of such seeming archaisms, the harmonic language of the Mass is both contemporary and uniquely Vaughan Williams. It is a perfect example 'of breathing new life into old styles' . . ." For all purpose, we shouldn't underestimate the influence of J.S. Bach (with his huge B minor Mass, "arguably the greatest choral work ever written") on the mind and creative process of the 50-year-old British composer. Bach, as we know, was one of Vaughan Williams's long-term favorites.
One commentator, in the classical music forum at [...], noted that "The G Minor Mass [...] is absolutely heartbreaking. Composed in 1921, it is one of the most perfect (along with Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin) expressions of the grievous and shattering loss caused by that terrible war. The 'Benedictus' is so personal--i suspect it was about George Butterworth [...]." Another commentator remarked pertinently : "What i love about this piece are its rich harmonies and flowing melodies. Its polyphonic, a cappella structure sounds very old, despite the fact it was composed in the 1920's. The Roger Wagner Chorale performed it often. One of Roger's tricks was, in the final 'Agnus Dei', to double the bass line an octave lower (like a Russian chorus). It was an amazing thing to do and really opened up that last page (where it expands to 12 parts). There is a long out of print Capitol Records recording of it."
Indeed, it appears seemingly futile trying to discuss the work in length without mentioning the important contribution of the Roger Wagner Chorale. Perhaps, it's worthwhile to indicate that the recording of the Mass by the Roger Wagner Chorale, paired with a Bach cantata, was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1961. "There can be no question that the Chorale's record of Ralph Vaughan Williams's Mass in G minor is the finest recording of that piece on the planet" (Dave Haberle). Years ago, i had the chance myself to acquire the original LP (Capitol SP8535, issued 1960). "With its simple left-to-right movement of sound, this mass is a typical early stereo recording. It is also a richly warm one that is in the service of its music." According to Steve Schwartz, the work is "the finest a cappella mass since the Elizabethans - the vocal equivalent of the Tallis Fantasia. [...] Roger Wagner led his Chorale in the piece's best performance to date, with a stirring account of Bach's Cantata No. 4 on the flip side - a classic recording of the stereo LP era. All others have paled in comparison. Wagner succeeds because he recognizes the energy within."
I do not subscribe necessarily to a monopolist idea in regards to the Mass in G minor ; instead, i suppose there are different "ways" to convey its greatness, to decipher its appealing musicality. The integrity of the work must be preserved though, with its inward nuance and architecture invariably clarified. The best interpretation must radiate its resounding depth, its restrained, mournful tone, with a sort of church-like austerity and dignified reverence. What i feel listening to the Mass in G minor is solace. The same kind of feeling i have when i enter in a small chapel or a church. Despite being relatively monolithic in structure, the work is sufficiently supple as to make sure that one of its parts can be excerpted in a program without wiping out the sense of coherence. The Agnus Dei, for instance, can stand alone on a record or program, as is often the case, and will not sound like a "bleeding chunk" contrarily to some grand scale works from Johann Sebastian Bach--such as the Mass in B minor--or W.A. Mozart's famous Requiem (there are works which do not bear the dictated "cuts" as easily as others, but that is not the case with VW's Mass).
Someday i hope someone chez EMI will resuscitate the Roger Wagner on cd, as i do believe it amply deserves a reissue. I have exactly the same query regarding the quintessential LP of Vaughan Williams's `The Sons of Light' (coupled with Parry's `Ode on the Nativity' on the Lyrita SRCS 125 LP), wondering why Lyrita let this and many other treasures gather dust in the safety vault (as an update, it is worth mentioning that most of the Lyrita catalogue has been reissued--a happy event indeed). I will discuss briefly on some popular and little-known complete recordings of the G minor, indicating my personal preference (*) from the viewpoint of interpretation :
Jeremy Backhouse, Vasari Singers, Rosslyn Hill Chapel, Hampstead, London (Guild CD GMCD 7132) - Titled `Songs of Farewell', this is an outstanding album that cogently shows why the Vasari Singers have won great acclaim for their recordings. The soloists are thoroughly excellent, matching the choir's fine voicing. Released 1997. Also includes works by Bridge and Parry.*
Martin Baker, Choir of Westminster Cathedral (Hyperion compact disc CDA67503) - Here is yet another superb reading. The atmosphere is remarkable, caught in warm and spacious sound with a touch of solemnity. Gerald Fenech in [...] notes that "the Choir of Westminster Cathedral responds with a limpid beauty to the direction of Martin Baker whose patient enthusiasm is very evident in the ecstatic end-product." Recorded in Westminster Cathedral, London, July 2004. Produced by Mark Brown. This is possibly the finest account the work has received in decades (this title is the disc under review).*
Banstead Musical Society (St.Cecilia Chorus), Surrey (David Birt Recording) - As far as i know, this is not a recording by a commercial company. It was part of a special concert in 1992. No further information was available about this rather obscure recording.
Matthew Best, Corydon Singers (Hyperion compact disc CDA66076) - This is one of the finest. The 1983 recording of the Mass sounds great and the performance is refined with articulate tonal qualities. The disc also contains what is possibly the greatest version of Howells's Requiem. "A moving and impressive addition to the a cappella repertoire" (The Daily Telegraph). The original recording has been reissued on the Helios series.*
Raymond Calcraft, Royal Leamington Spa Bach Choir (Abbey Recording Company, Oxford, Alpha LP ACA-581) - Issued 1988. The album includes notes, Latin text and English translation.
Dr. Sidney Campbell, The Choristers of Canterbury Cathedral (LPs : London FFRR Stereo OS 25271, also released on Argo as ZRG 5179) - This one is from 1959 and features James Finch, chorister, with the outstanding Canterbury Cathedral Choir. A splendid, vintage version coupled with Britten's `Ceremony of Carols'.*
Phiroz Dalal, St.Matthews Choir (private recording) - with Ken Williams, piano and Laurence Meikle, baritone. Live recording, October 4 2008, St.Matthews Church, Ealing (London). A quite interesting, simply effective performance of the Mass in G minor as part of an all VW program.
Stephen Darlington, Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford (Nimbus compact disc NI 5083) - Another excellent version, recorded in Merton College Chapel, Oxford, December 1986. "The singing is superb, beautifully lucid and balanced between the musical voices, with fine diction, accurate intonation and an almost uncanny precision at every entry" (Which Compact Disc). Here is a well-rehearsed session, for this is a most excellent version in every way--not only for the distinguished Mass but in the various smaller-scaled songs as well. This is one of my personal favorites with, at once, splendid singing and fine recorded sound.*
Hilary Davan Wetton, Holst Singers (Unicorn Kanchana DKPCD 9116, reissued on Regis as RRC 1135) - Produced in April 1990, this disc is one of the best reissues in the catalog. "Here we have a choir in which the blend of voices is particularly good, who shade their phrases sensitively, and who preserve fine singing-tone at pianissimo while producing a good robust forte. Under the guidance of their founder, Hilary Davan Wetton, they explore a rewarding repertoire ; and they are well served by the recording. [...] So the disc gains a strong recommendation" (Gramophone). This one is also a favorite of mine.*
Anders Eby, Mikaeli Kammarkor (choir), Stockholm (Proprius PRCD 9126) - Released in 1995 under the title `3 Masses of the 20th Century', this wonderful recording presents a responsive and refreshing version of the Mass - in a warm, vivid and transparent sound.*
Noel Edison, Elora Festival Singers (Naxos CD 8.554826) - Recorded February 2000. "A beautiful, idiomatic reading of the Mass" (Gramophone). "The performance by the Elora Singers deserves much praise, the recording is well balanced" (Terry Barfoot, MusicWeb). A fairly good account offered with a generous set of choral works.
Iwan Edwards, Choir of the Summer School (vocal ensemble), Sherbrooke University School of Music (private recording) - incl. Simon Gfeller, tenor, Chantal Legault, soprano, and Helene Panneton, organist (with other soloists). Recorded July 2005 at St. Patrick Church, Sherbrooke, and at Saint-Viateur d'Outremont, Montreal. I obtained that one thanks to the kind people at Sherbrooke University. Their reading offers a good measure of the original work--that is, a sincere approach to the sound world of Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Gerre Hancock, Saint Thomas Men & Boys' Choir, New York (Koch Classics CD 7418) - Recorded in May 1997. Produced by Susan N. Delgiorno. Reviewer David Vernier (Classics Today) noted that "the Saint Thomas Choir amply fills the generously proportioned nave of its Fifth Avenue church with clear, focused sound. [...] Overall, this is a solid, satisfying performance that leaves you wondering why these works aren't recorded more often."*
Anne Heider, His Majestie's Clerkes, Chicago, Illinois (Cedille Records CD 90000 036) - This is a splendid account, finely recorded in a reverberant space. Andrew Achenbach in Gramophone was impressed by "their immaculate discipline, radiant purity and expressive fervour" (and so do i, for this is a radiant performance supported by very good sound). Recorded February and March 1997 at Mallinckrodt Chapel, Wilmette, Illinois. The album is titled `Hear My Prayer' and also presents fine works by Parry and Stanford. "This is a cappella choral singing at its best" (The Laser Disc Gazette).*
Richard Hickox, Hickox Singers, London Symphony Chorus (Chandos CD CHAN 9984) - Here's a lovely rendition of the Mass, coupled with the fascinating Fourth Symphony. The G minor was recorded January 18 2002 in All Saints' Church, Tooting (London). "The sublime Mass in G minor receives a reading of ravishing liquidity and heartfelt radiance from Hickox's hand-picked a cappella group. [...] A memorable Mass" (Gramophone). Produced by Brian Couzens.*
Edward Higginbottom, New College Choir, Oxford (Meridian CD 84441) - with Jerome Finnis, treble, Stephen Taylor, alto, Philip Cave, tenor, and John Bernays, bass. "There is no shortage of good recordings of the Mass in G minor, the one that stands out as being openeyed and adventurous in spirit being the version on Meridian by the Choir of New College, Oxford. They favor a sharper tone with a quicker tempo in the longest movement (the Credo) and a brighter acoustic. Without robbing the work of its mysticism, they bring it further out of the shadows and let it breathe a fresher air" (Gramophone). Recorded Sept. 1991, New College Chapel, Oxford. Producer: Timothy Morris.*
Donald Hunt, Worcester Cathedral Choir (Griffin GCCD 4043, originally released on the Abbey Alpha label as CDCA-906) - Recorded at Worcester Cathedral, April 1990. "Hunt and his choir give a very fine performance indeed. The soloists do very well, the treble especially, and the choir sing this timeless, very beautiful music extremely responsively" (John Quinn, MusicWeb).
Marika Kuzma, The Chamber Chorus of the University of California, Berkeley (private recording, 2005 - ? -) - The ensemble has earned a fine reputation in the San Francisco Bay Area since its founding in the mid 1980s and their rendition of the Mass is supposed to be a worthwile account.
Norman Mackenzie, Atlanta Symphony Chamber Chorus (Telarc CD-80654, with others) - Ray Tuttle ([...]) noted that "the Atlanta women sing this work with a fresh and boyish timbre... but with very adult discipline and technical skills. A performance such as this one, then, is the best of both worlds." Recorded in June 2005 at the Episcopal Cathedral of St.Philip, Atlanta. Superb and spacious sound captured by famed engineers Jack Renner and Ed Meitner.*
Roger Wagner Chorale, Concert Arts Orchestra, Los Angeles (EMI/Capitol Records SP 8535) - Produced circa 1960. With Paul Salamunovich, cantor. The b-side of the LP includes Bach's cantata `Christ Lag in Todesbanden'. "The best choir ever, not to mention the most beautiful! ...I have been singing your praises everywhere here" (Sir William Walton). "Roger Wagner deserves all my admiration for his dedicated work ...A notable achievement in technique and sound as well as perfect interpretation" (Hector Villa-Lobos).*
Sir David Willcocks, Choir of King's College, Cambridge (EMI Angel 69820 CD) - The King's was produced during the years 1968-69 and is a consistently good, if not great, recording. It features the voices of John Eaton, treble, and Nigel Perrin, alto, along with nice choral singing. "The performance by the Choir of King's is fine. David Willcocks yet again demonstrates why he is one of the finest conductors of choral music and one of the finest choir trainers of the latter part of the twentieth century. The choir's diction, tone, intonation and clarity are exemplary. The result is a recording of power, emotion and sensitivity" (Drew Morgan, Amazon.co.uk reviews).*
Finally, to conclude this rather long essay i will sum up my thoughts on the present Hyperion cd. The two masses on this album are fine examples of enduring commitments in English choral tradition : The VW is, of course, the setting par excellence for that type of musical event. So is Judith Bingham's Mass, a work that reaches great heights--both in terms of spirituality and artistry. Bingham's suits appropriately VW's "view" of music-making for the church. Christopher Thomas of MusicWeb has rightly stated that "Bingham's music has always sounded unmistakably English, an indication perhaps of why it appears to sit so well here alongside Vaughan Williams." As a composer, she has her own voice and i find much ingenuity in it. The result is a grand, invigorating, sprightly colored work for the church, where the organ occupies a premium place. To say the least, Bingham's is another truly original work. Westminster has a special affinity with the music of those artists, and perhaps that is why it reflects the harmonies with such a singular, "dusky" radiance--just as heard on this fine disc. Even though i agree with some reviewers that the sound is a bit "problematic," i think overall it is barely a negligible glitch put against the splendor of the program. According to David Vernier (Classics Today) it is mostly due "to the Cathedral's distinctive acoustic, which characteristically affects every choir recording from this venue." The singing is exceptional (and virtually flawless), and the place has a dry characteristic reverb as to invoke the long history of the renowned cathedral. The singing is fluid, expressive and energetic and sounds much like the phenomenal Roger Wagner--without quite matching the latter's unique values. The disc also includes `A vision of aeroplanes', one of VW's last creations, as well as `O vos omnes' and `Valiant-for-Truth', no major stuff perhaps but still nicely executed : `A vision of aeroplanes', in particular, is a fascinating work which makes for great, imaginative organ bravado. The work "vividly depicts Ezekiel's prophetic inspiration." It has a sort of subterranean quality, and resounds as if almost breathed in tone, sometimes giving the listener the impression of being powerfully forward-looking. Last but no least : The `Te Deum in G' of 1928 is sung exquisitely. This is now the finest on disc (even better than the "other" great Hyperion, under direction of the excellent Matthew Best, CDA66076). This Vaughan Williams - Bingham record offers a magnificent set with, especially, one of the truly great versions of the G minor.*****