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Vaughan Williams: Mass in G Minor
The Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge
A utilitarian in matters of religion—he valued Christian liturgy and King James Bible expressions primarily for their culturally unifying properties—Vaughan Williams was, nevertheless, both reverent and bold in his handling of spiritually lofty themes. And, on these mostly a cappella performances, so is the Choir of St. John’s. As put through its dynamics-sensitive paces by the director Andrew Nethsingha, the choir achieves transcendence whether in pianissimo or fortissimo mode. The five-movement Mass is the masterpiece, but the eight stand-alone pieces that follow belong.
Vaughan Williams: Songs of Travel
James Gilchrist, Philip Dukes, Anna Tilbrook
The title refers to the nine Robert Louis Stevenson poems that Vaughan Williams set to music for solo tenor voice (Gilchrist in this case) and piano (Tilbrook), achieving a robust, and at times a contemplative, lyricism. The subtitle, Songs and Chamber Works, refers to the eight other pieces, each of which reinforces or develops the mood of the first nine. In the songs with words, the melodies are singing Gilchrist as much as he’s singing them. In the two without, something similar goes for Dukes’ piano-accompanied viola.
Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 5, Symphony No. 6
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
The conductor Andrew Manze knows what he wants and how to get it. Under his baton, the Pilgrim’s Progress–inspired Symphony No. 5 in D reveals Vaughan Williams’ ability to synthesize disparate echoes (of Ravel, Debussy, folksong, Tudor-era melodies) at a practically subconscious level, intuiting rather than seeking out their less-than-obvious affinities. The Symphony No. 6 in E Minor, meanwhile, composed in the years immediately following World War II, retains its associations with the expenditure of martial energies and, more importantly, the corresponding emotional turbulence.
Vaughan Williams: Piano Concerto, Oboe Concerto, Serenade to Music, Flos Campi
Toronto Symphony Orchestra
If you buy only one new Vaughan Williams album, make this all-Canadian-cast recording the one. The Elmer Iseler Singers rise to the considerable challenges of Flos Campi, a suite drawn from the Song of Solomon and therefore often characterized as “erotic” (although “sensuous” would be more accurate). The Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the four solo vocalists ennoble, and are ennobled by, the Serenade to Music. And no less beautiful in their streamlined lushness are the Oboe Concerto in A Minor and the Piano Concerto in C.
“[N]o composer since Beethoven,” said Anthony Payne, “has had the sheer breadth that Vaughan Williams has got. And it’s amazing how he was willing to go into new territories.” A case in point is Beyond My Dream: Music for Greek Plays (Albion), Alan Tongue-conducted world-premiere recordings by the mezzo-soprano Heather Lowe, the chamber choir Joyful Company of Singers, and the Britten Sinfonia. Vaughan Williams composed the pieces in 1911 and 1912 for productions of Euripides based on Gilbert Murray’s rhyming translations. But the productions never materialized, and the music gathered dust.
Tongue has dusted it off and reconstructed the missing or incomplete parts, challenging preconceived notions of Vaughan Williams’ approach toward matching declamatory verse to music in the process. Although Euripides scholars will have a head start on being able to dispense with the libretto, all that the music and the performances really require is a willingness to concentrate—and to be repeatedly (and pleasantly) surprised. —A.O.