Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Ends of a continuum, plus one in the middle

Vaughan Williams: Mass in G Minor, Choral Works

Having just completed a review of a Vaughan Williams CD from Toronto, I'm back on familiar English turf with this new recording of his choral music from The Choir of St. John's Cambridge. However, here's fair warning that I'm going to stay on what might be a controversial topic: the question of Trans-Atlantic Vaughan Williams. The new disc is beautifully sung, and sounds outstanding. But I have a sentimental favourite for the G Minor Mass from the Olden Days of the long-playing record: the Roger Wagner Chorale on a 1961 Angel LP matched with a Bach cantata. Though never released on CD by EMI, there's a very good Pristine Classical re-issue of this most passionate recording from Los Angeles, with a small choir of some of the greatest American singers ever assembled. Though the complete list of singers isn't included in the notes, the Chorale at one point included the Hollywood superstars Marni  Nixon and Salli Terri. In a rave review of the Pristine Classical disc, SGS says "It comes down to rhythm. Vaughan Williams actually swings in this score, and British choirs don't. They tend toward bloodless piety. I think the work really benefits from Wagner's point of view outside the English cathedral tradition." I'm half way to agreeing with this, but I suspect my enthusiasm also comes from more than a bit of sheer nostalgia.

The new disc, meanwhile, is from the Choir of St. John's Cambridge, which I assume puts it firmly in the English cathedral tradition. This performance of the Mass is cooler, more serene; at times it even sounds careful. So sure, looked at in a certain way you might call it bloodless, but then from another one might call the Roger Wagner version vulgar, especially considering the Leopold Stokowski style re-orchestration and recording gimmicks to highlight the work in the Hollywood style.  Vaughan Williams had in mind Byrd and Tallis, of course, but there are more modern influences from the Continent as well, including especially Ravel. We have, then, two completely different readings of this impressive work, each pretty much at an end of the continuum. It's probably very Canadian of me to introduce a (Canadian) compromise that fits nicely in the middle, with choral singing at the same high level as the other two: the 2002 Naxos recording with the Elora Festival Singers under Noel Edison. It's a sign of the greatness of Vaughan Williams' choral writing that three interpretations so completely different can all provide such pleasure.

This disc will be released on May 18, 2018

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