“Extremely accomplished singing moulded into a coherent and eloquent whole.”
Jeremy Summerly, BBC Music Magazine
“This disc should be a best seller and has rarely been out of my CD player!”
- Conductor: Jeremy Backhouse
- Organist: Jeremy Filsell
Released by Guild
- Recorded in 24-bit resolution
songs of farewell
Vasari Singers give a persuasive interpretation of the Mass with conductor Jeremy Backhouse
The two best performances on CD both date from the more recent past and both come from London-based, mixed-voice choirs – so much for the spiritual home of this piece being within the liturgy. Actually, that is a little unfair since the individual members of the Corydon Singers and the Vasari Singers have all had experience of working within Christian liturgies at some stage during their lives…
However, the performance by the Vasari Singers is distinguished by its exciting climaxes and its careful shaping throughout. With this recording conductor Jeremy Backhouse has arrived at a persuasive interpretation of the Mass – a piece whose technical difficulty so often overshadows any chance to mould the piece into a convincing whole. The Vasari Singers bring Vaughan Williams’s Mass to life while also leaving its delicately archaic style intact. That, it seems to me, is the secret of this masterpiece.
“The Vasari Singers under Jeremy Backhouse from Guild Music, my top recommendation for Vaughan Williams’s Mass in G minor. What’s most impressive about this version is the extraordinarily careful pacing with which Jeremy Backhouse infuses the piece. Backhouse manages to bring the Mass to life while also leaving its deliberately archaic style intact. The work’s clear structure is treated with consideration and respect, but within those logical parameters there’s a subtly flexible approach to each and every bar. Not every chord is in tune, that’s undeniable. But there isn’t a single recording of this piece where that is the case. What you do get from the Vasari Singers is a performance that has passion and integrity in equal measure. And for that reason, and for its controlled joie do vivre, it’s a recording that bears repeated listening.”
Jeremy Summerly, BBC Radio Three
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!
1998 was a year in which Parry (Composer of Jerusalem) was remembered on the 150th anniversary of his birth. The Vasari singers sing his neglected SONGS OF FAREWELL as part of an all-English programme on the Guild label. A well-filled CD provides an object-lesson for choirs.
For a feature of Hubert Parry (The Gentle Art of Parry) Classic CD has chosen Track 15 – “There is an old belief” – (3:46) for their Cover Disc.
This, the fourth of songs of Farewell, starts with gentle counterpoint. A cadence is reached (0:37) and the music continues with broader curves of melody, reaching another cadence (1:41) and silence. In unison ff, the chorus affirms belief (1:44) and, more quietly, hope (1:53). Emotion deepens (2:04) at the thought that endless sleep would be better than not to awaken in heaven. Two inconclusive cadences are reached (2:34, 2:50); “eternal” is repeated in awe (3:03);finally a remarkable sense of space is achieved by taking the upper voices very high, with the basses divided far below (3:17).
It is not often that music by Parry, Bridge and Vaughan Williams is heard on one CD but that is what this Jeremy Backhouse’s recording has done, with Bridge’s rarely heard A Prayer framed by Parry’s Songs of Farewell and Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G minor
It is a rare treat to hear all six of the Parry songs in one siting, disclosing the composer’s scheme of using a four part choir for numbers one and two and then adding an additional voice for each of the subsequent motets. His sumptuous vocal writing is sensitively handled by the Vassari Singers who obviously have a great understanding of English a cappella music.
This disc contains some of the finest British choral works of their time by composers whose work is rarely programmed together. Sir Hubert Parry’s Songs of Farewell were composed around 1915-16 near the end of his life (he died in 1918 at the age of 70). Frank Bridge’s Prayer, also from 1916, remains his only major choral work. Ralph Vaughan William’s Mass in G minor was first performed in 1922. Naturally, works composed within five years of each other share some similarities. Parry clearly belongs to an earlier generation but was for a time Vaughan William’s teacher at the Royal College of Music in London. The Vasari Singers are very fine. I hear little difficulty with intonation, and they listen to each other very well. Jeremy Backhouse deserves credit for leading the ensemble with such sensitivity and conviction. Jeremy Filsell offers dramatic and eloquent support on the organ. The sound is very beautiful if a little diffuse: I sometimes had trouble catching the words. Texts are supplied.
A made-in-heaven pairing of two 20th century masterpieces – the Mass in G Minor and the Songs of Farewell – separated by an intriguing, rarely heard Bridge work which seams like a dream into the following Parry – all represent substantial challenges – many an amateur choir must have tackled the Vaughan Williams and the Parry unwarily, and come unstuck.
The Vasari Singers offer good performances, well into the mood of each work, with warm legato sound. The slightly too distant recording tends to show up a lack of vowel clarity and the solo quartet in the Mass is a little unsteady at times. Both of the main works make severe demands in terms of tuning, especially the Parry and, perhaps inevitably, there are a few shortcomings. It remains a more than welcome release.
The Songs of farewell, containing some of Parry’s greatest music, provide an extraordinary spiritual and emotional journey, drawing the listener ever closer, gently asserting their mood of leavetaking. I am not sure there is yet an ideal recording, such is the mountain to be climbed. Richard Marlow and his Trinity College, Cambridge choir are immaculate and beautifully paced, but lacking the last few ounces of emotional depth. Buy their version and the Vasari’s, then mix in the head.
The Guild label has an ever-growing reputation for excellent recordings of imaginative programmes, and these recent releases present both a high standard of performance and production.
The Songs of Farewell disc comprises Parry’s exquisite settings of the same name, together with Vaughan Williams’ haunting Mass in G minor and the, for some, unfamiliar A Prayer, by Bridge. The Vasari Singers under the direction of their conductor, Jeremy Backhouse, were winners of the 1988 Sainsbury’s Choir of the Year competition and judging from the very first sounds that emerge from this disc, the reasons for their success are immediately apparent.
This choir sings with enviable blend and balance, handling all the complexities of the music with great ease. The Vasari Singers are admirably joined by Jeremy Filsell, whose accompaniment in the Bridge piece is a delight. This disc should be a best seller and has rarely been out of my CD player!
A splendid collection of fine English choral music superbly sung by Jeremy Backhouse’s Vasari Singers – Their RVW Mass is glorious and the two more well-known motets from Songs of Farewell ‘My soul there is a country’ and ‘Lord, let me know mine end’ sound fresh-minted and very moving.
‘A Prayer’ is a deeply felt work, a setting of a German text composed during the Great War to underline Bridge’s pacifist beliefs. The organ plays an important integral part in this beautiful work of gentle supplications leading to a climax of passionate fervour.
The sympathetic acoustic of Rosslyn Hill Chapel is a perfect setting for these intricate, multi-part works
PERFORMANCE: Five Star
SOUND: Five Star
An excellent performance of the Vaughan Williams Mass alongside some slightly less enticing fare
The Vasari Singers already have an excellent recording of Herbert Howells’s Requiem in the catalogue, and the performance of Vaughan Williams’s Mass in G minor which opens this new disc will undoubtedly enhance their reputation as one of Britain’s finest chamber choirs.
Jeremy Backhouse’s interpretation of the Mass is notably restrained and rarified in style, with much concentration on the devotional aspects of the work, and not a whiff of cheap concert hall theatrics in the air. That is not to say that it is dull. Far from it: there is much quietly beautiful and very musicianly singing here, and I was particularly impressed by the choir’s ability to sustain both warmth and focus in their tone when singing at the lowest dynamic levels, always so much more difficult than when volume output is high.
The Bridge and Parry items are less distinguished musically, but are just as well performed, although in the Bridge the organ struck me as a little dominantly balanced in relation to the choir. The VW performance, however, is definitely a “must hear”.
Performance: 4 – 5 Star
Sound: 4 Earphones