Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Mass in G minor (1921)
O taste and see (1953)
Sir James MacMillan (b. 1959)
What man is he that feareth the Lord? (2020)
Mass of St Edward the Confessor (2022)
A Special Appeal (2017)
Who shall separate us? (2011-2012)
Sir John Tavener (1944-2013)
Magnificat and Nunc dimittis ‘Collegium Regale’ (1987)
Song for Athene (1993)
Peter Holder (organ)
Choir of Westminster Abbey/James O’Donnell
rec. 2022, Westminster Abbey & All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London
Texts and translations included
Hyperion CDA68420 
Vaughan Williams admirers who buy this disc for the Mass in G minor will find themselves in the company of five other sacred choral works that employ a musical language rather distant from that of the Mass. For this Vaughan Williams admirer, those remaining pieces have turned out to be at least as compelling as the main work, and perhaps even more so.
There are few extraneous sharps and flats in John Tavener’s music, but it can sound surprising all the same. The semitone dissonances in Song for Athene, for instance, seem to occur almost by accident. A glance at the score reveals but few notes, but any choir that has undertaken it knows how difficult the work is to bring off successfully. (Pity the poor basses who hold onto a bottom F pedal note throughout.) This is a fine performance, splendidly sonorous at the only passage marked forte, and at a more flowing tempo than the dangerously slow yet profoundly serene reading by the same choir under Martin Neary (recorded some 18 years earlier on Sony). The Magnificat and Nunc dimittis that Tavener composed for King’s College, Cambridge in 1986 inhabits a world quite different from other settings of the text. The use of held notes and drones are reminiscent of Orthodox chant, and the Magnificat text is interrupted several times by the use of an Orthodox one in praise of the Virgin. Its undulating setting is suitably joyful as it closes with the words ‘thee we do magnify’.
The first of the works by James MacMillan, What man is he that feareth the Lord?, is perhaps the least approachable. It employs a fair amount of harsh dissonance, but only a couple of hearings are necessary for it to begin to reveal its secrets. Who shall separate us?, on the other hand, is immediately appealing. Composed in 2012 to a commission in anticipation of the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, it is not without its more turbulent passages, but it is deeply affecting and suits its intended purpose admirably.
Upper voices dominate the first part of the Kyrie of Mass of St Edward the Confessor, the tenors and basses holding long chords underneath. These roles are reversed when the Kyrie returns after a Christe that is more forthright and dissonant. The Gloria, in four sections, features a particularly lovely treatment when the words refer to ‘the right hand of the Father’, and a passage in Gregorian style precedes the peaceful close. The Sanctus follows – there is no Credo – and MacMillan has a particularly satisfying solution to the problem of the Sanctus bell. Listeners might note a parallel in Britten’s War Requiem at the words ‘Pleni sunt caeli’. The Osannas are wonderfully sonorous. In the Agnus Dei, a tenor soloist responds to the choir with florid undulating lines. The whole choir takes up his music to close with an impassioned request for peace. This is a superb work.
The odd one out among MacMillan’s works is A special appeal. The composer’s faith dominates the other works; his political engagement is just as much in evidence here. Part of the text is taken from Psalm 31, but the remaining words are by Óscar Romero, a Salvadoran priest who was shot dead whilst celebrating Mass in 1980. It is he, through the voice of a solo tenor and a fearsome organ part, who makes the ‘appeal’ to the Salvadoran military that they cease to carry out the repressive work, including killings, ordered by the government. MacMillan has described this work as a ‘mini sacred opera’, and his admirers will note the connection with the earlier Búsqueda, which gives a voice to the mothers of the activists or perceived opposition sympathisers ‘disappeared’ by the Argentinean government’s secret police.
Vaughan Williams’s motet O taste and see, composed for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, is an exquisite miniature jewel in an exquisite performance here, more leisurely than some, and with a lovely contribution from treble soloist, James Tweedie. The piece is frequently sung a cappella, but here we get the three-bar organ introduction; the instrument is silent thereafter.
Composed to a commission from Richard R. Terry, the first director of music at Westminster Cathedral, the Mass in G minor was actually dedicated ‘To Gustav Holst and his Whitsuntide Singers’. Neither of these groups gave its first performance, however: that honour was accorded the City of Birmingham Choir under its conductor Joseph Lewis. Terry’s view of the Mass was that it was ‘the work one has all along been waiting for’. As well as paying homage to Tudor polyphony, Terry’s special interest, there is much writing for double choir that echoes the spatial techniques that Monteverdi and others employed in St Mark’s in Venice.
Vaughan Williams’s music has been described as austere, even cold, but one should remember that he conceived it for liturgical use. There is a certain restraint, therefore, a distance between the music and the emotional response that music might be expected to provoke in a listener. This is as fine a performance as any now available. Contrapuntal lines are clearly audible, and the overall balance is exemplary. The choir’s sound has exceptional richness and homogeneity. It dispenses considerable power where necessary and makes the more inward passages alive. I am, as often, a little disappointed by the sublime final page. Within the space of only nine bars, the choir is required to make a decrescendo from forte to triple piano, which I have yet to hear any ensemble truly achieve. But this does not really detract from a deeply satisfying collection.
Previous review: John Quinn (August 2023)
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