VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Mass in G minor (Nethsingha)
‘O radiant Luminary’: composers down the ages have attempted to catch light in music, but the opening of Prayer to the Father of Heaven is surely one of the most succinct and total successes. Dating from 1948, it’s one of the last works on a collection that lays stress on the composer as mystic visionary, in terms both of repertoire and performance.
Later still is O taste and see, less than 70 years old, and yet its opening line could have been written at any time during the last 500 years – or so it seems in the unaffected simplicity of Alfred Harrison’s delivery. Without undue resonance or blurred harmonies, the recording has plenty of air: there’s a remote, untouchable quality to O vos omnes, attributable partly to the modal writing, partly also to a sense of distance between choir and microphones.
The choir sounds smaller (though it isn’t) than on its previous recording, of Masses by Poulenc and Kodály (1/18). This is to advantage at moments such as the pick-up of energy for ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ in the Gloria of the Mass, the timeless heterophony of the Sanctus and the Tudor part-writing of the Agnus. Elsewhere there is a loss of impact: travel back to New Year’s Day 1970 via the choir’s website (search for ‘SJC Live’) and you’ll hear the men of St John’s filling the chapel with George Herbert’s cry of joy (‘Let all the world’) even if half of them were singing with hangovers. Their successors strain every sinew but to less effect.
Three other Cambridge choirs have recently recorded Lord, thou hast been our refuge within mixed thematic albums, and they all make a sharper distinction between the semi-chorus singing Psalm 90 and the numinous echo of ‘O God our help in ages past’; curiously, only the choir of Jesus includes the score’s opening unison A (Signum), and the luxury casting of Alison Balsom for the final trumpet descant lends unrivalled splendour to the King’s account (King’s College Records, 6/15). Even so, this masterful fusion of psalm setting, verse anthem and chorale fantasia is the right and only way to set the seal on a demonstration of Vaughan Williams’s particular place in the English choral tradition as an atheist devoted to the continued value of liturgical music.