VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Dona nobis pacem HOUGH Missa Mirabilis
Hard on the heels of Robert Spano’s impressively polished Atlanta account of Dona nobis pacem comes this rival – and, to my ears, markedly more involving – version from Denver. Not only does Andrew Litton draw a terrifically agile response from his combined Colorado Symphony forces, he masterminds a reading which in its expressive urgency, arresting conviction and dramatic bite grabs the listener from the word go. At 3'06" in ‘Beat! beat! drums!’ (tr 2) just listen to the way those fearsome bass-drum thwacks so graphically echo Whitman’s text (‘So strong you thump O terrible drums’), and how majestically Litton paces the lofty processional that is ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’, its lump-in-the-throat resolution – where softly elegiac bugle calls yield to the choir’s unforgettably compassionate last line, ‘My heart gives you love’ – so deeply affecting here. Sarah Fox’s hugely imploring, memorably refulgent contribution puts me in mind of her towering display on Richard Hickox’s superb recording of Kenneth Leighton’s sublime Sinfonia mistica (Chandos, 1/09); Christopher Maltman, too, sings with unstinting integrity and intelligence, while Simon Eadon’s engineering boasts striking impact, spread and amplitude. No RVW devotee should miss hearing this profoundly moving rendering.
The coupling, Stephen Hough’s personable Missa mirabilis, was originally composed in 2006 for Martin Baker’s Westminster Cathedral Choir; the present orchestral reworking was commissioned by the Indianapolis Symphony. It’s a succinct, attractively melodic and rhythmically buoyant creation, with stylistic nods towards Poulenc in particular, and whose sparky setting of the central Credo imaginatively confronts the key questions of faith and doubt, innocence and experience. Suffice to say, Litton presides over another first-rate display. Incidentally, the work’s epithet of ‘mirabilis’ is apt indeed: in his annotation Hough tells us that, halfway through writing it, he somehow emerged almost entirely unscathed from a horrendous car crash on the M1. A most rewarding pairing, this, and very warmly recommended.