Album Review

Posted: Thursday 11th February 1999
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Songs of Farewell – Choir & Organ

The Mass in G minor is arguably one of Vaughan Williams’s most important works and a milestone in liturgical settings of the mass in the 20th century. Frequently dismissed as rather sullen, dark and dour, its strengths lie in its enormous depth of feeling. By some alchemy we are spiritually transported back a few hundred years and yet we still feel the terra firma of a wind-swept English countryside. Comparing two recordings of this piece is no simple task, especially as more than a quarter of a century lies between their respective recording dates. We must also consider that this is no simple a cappella setting of the mass. I confess to having witnessed some fairly excruciating performances and having sung in a few that were, perhaps, less than creditable. Vaughan Williams takes delight in throwing the voices around in an orchestral way and seemingly revels in moving the trebles higher and yet higher and the basses lower and yet more profundo. A piece then, full of colour and extremes.

Both recordings have their good and not-so-good bits, but it is interesting to note that, although many years separate them, the style and technical quality of the recordings are excellent.

So to the musical differences.

King’s, not unexpectedly, has a clarity and ‘ring’ throughout, whereas the Vasari recording has a mellowness at its heart. On balance I much prefer the tenor and bass sound of King’s, for it has a depth and sonority reminiscent of divisi cellos and basses in a fine string ensemble. The quality of the Vasari sopranos is close to that of boys’ voices (though not those of King’s), but with more control and less shriek in the upper registers. The quality of the King’s solely male altos is preferable to the Vasari alto line-up. (A purely personal opinion and perhaps reserved for this piece alone.) The warmth of the Vasari Singers is the more enhanced by the subtle dynamics and the natural rise and fall, which is less evident in the King’s recording. Having praised the Vasari Singers, 1 must say that occasionally I felt the lower voices did suffer from pitch and tone problems which King’s didn’t.

As to the interpretation, it is clear that two closely allied concepts can reach fruition with obvious differences. The Willcocks (1969) recording is rock-like and darkly granitised, whereas the Backhouse interpretation is more gentle: wind and rain beating down on heathland. One is perhaps more subtle than the other. In their own way, both are very fine performances of this great, if elusive work. It is simply a matter of how you like your meat cooked!

I congratulate the producers of both CDs for the companion pieces to the Vaughan Williams Mass. Bax and Finzi appear on the King’s disc, albeit performances under Stephen Cleobury and, of course, with a completely different choir some 20 years on, this being a compilation disc. Parry’s Songs of Farewell and Frank Bridge’s A Prayer are offered by the Vasari Singers. The latter piece, being previously unknown to me, is a real discovery and I am won over to it through this recording. If you don’t know it, take a tip and get a copy. It’s a great piece. Given all this you may not be surprised that I’d plump for the Vasari / Backhouse disc as my first choice, though I’d prefer to have both, which, thanks to the Editor, I have!

Peter Beaven
Choir & Organ