Both Martin’s Mass and Howells’ Requiem were regarded by their composers as being too deeply personal utterances to be allowed into the public domain and both were withheld from publication for 37 and 45 years respectively. Consequently any choir attempting to commit these works to disc need to handle the task with exceptional care and sensitivity. There’s no question about the care and sensitivity of Jeremy Backhouse’s approach with his excellent Vasari Singers: when his disc first appeared it was nominated for a Gramophone Award. Rightly so, for not only is it a stunning display of beautifully measured and controlled a cappella singing, but it reaches the very heart of these deeply moving works.
However, in the intervening years new competition has appeared and, in the case of Frank Martin’s glorious Mass, James O’Donnell and the Westminster Cathedral Choir produced such an astonishingly powerful performance that their disc not only won a Gramophone Award but was voted Record of the Year. What made their performance so compelling was not the kind of close, almost loving intimacy which is the hallmark of the Vasari performance, but an almost impersonal detachment which renders the emotional impact of the work all the more intense.
Things are very different in the case of the two Howells pieces. Again, stiff competition from another award-winning disc has appeared in the intervening years, but in many ways this music seems more the natural territory of the Vasari Singers. With its somewhat peculiar mix of cantata (parts did find their way into the composer’s large-scale Hymnus Paradisi), liturgical psalm and plainchant (deliciously intoned by Mark Johnstone) the Requiem is a remarkably complex work requiring not just the restraint of a choir well used to singing liturgical music but a degree of musical, vocal and emotional maturity – not to mention soloists of the calibre Jeremy Backhouse has here been able to draw from – which, for all their excellence, the young men and boys of St John’s Cambridge cannot begin to match. Just listen to that final, truly profound chord from the Requiem to have the point driven home.