VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Dona Nobis Pacem BERNSTEIN Chichester Psalms
Though scored by Vaughan Williams with the Huddersfield Choral Society in mind, it transpires that Dona nobis pacem need lose none of its impact when sung by a smaller ensemble when the orchestration is reduced too, as it is here in a new version by Jonathan Rathbone, one that will surely attract new amateur performances by choral societies without a metropolitan reach.
In that matter of impact, King’s Chapel plays its part, not only in the acoustic halo that surrounds Ailish Tynan’s opening plea, but the space surrounding and somehow uplifting strings and voices: bass drum and organ entirely fill the air when they need to, but there is a not inappropriate illusion of the performance taking place in mid-air.
That’s also due to Stephen Cleobury’s incisive direction. Smaller forces bring with them here accents like bullets in ‘Beat! beat! drums’ and shrapnel-shards of consonants: no mean feat in that building. The apotheosis of ‘Reconciliation’, treble line floated over the main choir and answered by a reprise of Tynan’s imprecation, is most hauntingly achieved. The plainer tread of the long ‘Dirge’, originally conceived at a time (around 1905) when Vaughan Williams and Holst were best of friends, works well at a more than usually flowing tempo and the reduced orchestration brings the organ forwards to lend greater dignity to its climax.
Roderick Williams puts his own choral-scholar experience to good use with a confiding delivery of John Bright’s words in ‘The Angel of Death’; like Brian Rayner Cook in Bryden Thomson’s recording (my own favourite of the original version on record – Chandos, 3/89), he is noble, unfussy and not too theatrical.
The sense of the choir and Cleobury making an album slightly out of character with their recorded legacy continues with a Chichester Psalms which is punchy and present – the Hebrew sounding far more guttural and ‘other’ in the King’s acoustic – in a way that their previous recording for EMI was not. Though placed farther from the microphones than his earlier counterpart, George Hill makes a stronger, more stoutly confident impression in Psalm 23, beautifully accompanied on harp by Helen Sharp.