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CD Review

A Cambridge Mass

* Olivia Robinson, soprano
* Rebecca Lodge, contralto
* Christopher Bowen, tenor
* Edward Price, baritone
The Bach Choir
New Queen's Hall Orchestra/Alan Tongue
Albion ALBCD020
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This CD is of greater historical and musicological interest than it is an exciting new and appealing discovery of an otherwise unrecorded work that's typical of the unique flavors and colors of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Albion, the label of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society, has done the still often misunderstood composer proud. It continues to do so with the present recording. Indeed, the Cambridge Mass, a surprisingly large scale work for a "test piece", albeit his submission for doctorate in 1899, had not been recorded until this performance in 2011 after the conductor, Alan Tongue, transcribed over 150 pages from the unused manuscript in 2007.

The Cambridge Mass – presumably so called because RVW's time there had such an influence on him, as it did many of his illustrious contemporaries… Bertrand Russell, George Moore, George Trevelyan, John McTaggart and Roger Fry, for instance – has only the credo, offertorium and sanctus, hosanna, benedictus; it's scored for four soloists (S,C,T,B), double chorus and orchestra; it lasts about 45 minutes.

It's a robust work with few moments of introspection, wistfulness or the mellow sense of nostalgia that we associate with Vaughan Williams, for all that his music is actually much broader in scope and depth. The performers here have shown us – without fuss or fanfare – that the composer of A Lark Ascending, Job and nine superb symphonies had extensive technical prowess. Their playing and singing are acutely refined, paced perfectly, and full of an enjoyable blend of grace and trenchancy that implicitly foreshadow what the composer would need in the next 50 years in order to convey his world view to listeners way beyond what Elisabeth Lutyens famously dismissed as "cow-pat music".

Many are the passages where Vaughan Williams' skills to set words and create the right musical structure are evident. The transition into the Et resurrexit [tr.s 2,3], for example: control is followed by measured exaltation. Yet it's an exultation that has as much variety as it has tentative extroversion. The balance of male and female voices adds to the depth, the need for which a lesser composer might have ignored; or mismanaged. Yes, the Amen [tr.4] is drawn out in ways for which a more experienced composer might have provided innate musical reasons. But the performers take it at face value and avoid over-dramatizing it.

Although it's hardly necessary to couple the recording of A Cambridge Mass with the muscular yet equally elegant Blest Pair of Sirens of Hubert Parry, Vaughan Williams' teacher, doing so reminds us that the visionary and transcendent The Dream of Gerontius was written at exactly the same time.

Tongue and his forces, though, never try to stretch what this music will bear. No doubt borne along by the thrill of a live performance (in Croydon's Fairfield Halls, with their sympathetic acoustic), soloists, choir and orchestra all revel in the outward-looking nature of the music, which is tempered with a sense that self-confidence is strongest when earned for good reason. Which was exactly Vaughan Williams' case.

A Cambridge Mass was, then, written as if to order. The University required certain components for such purposes: the length, forces (including double chorus), canon and fugue, for instance. Yet this performance refuses to emphasize the aspects of the work that the composer must have seen as core for their own sake (he famously made a list of the characteristics of the tuba and wrote them one by one into his Tuba Concerto). Rather, it skillfully makes the listener aware of the textures, melodies and scoring of which Vaughan Williams already showed great command. Ambition and zest. But directed as effectively as they were in the cases of Dvorak, Brahms and Schumann, with all of whom Vaughan Williams had made himself familiar by the time he wrote A Cambridge Mass. This is music to enjoy and become involved with – when comparing it with the sublime "Mass in G minor", written a world away in 1921 – rather than lose oneself in; it lacks the transcendence of the later work. Yet is approached by Tongue and his forces without such pretensions.

The booklet that comes with the well-recorded and well-presented CD contains all the background which a non-specialist (or indeed a Vaughan Williams aficionado) is likely to want. It has the full text of both works and brief bios of the performers. This ambitious project, indeed the work of the Society and Albion in general (each of their CDs contains a world première), is to be applauded and supported. Not least in the hope that Vaughan Williams will be more widely appreciated for the full and significant contribution to twentieth century music that he made. In particular, this CD shows how – as the late RVW expert Michael Kennedy said after this performance – "It is the real Vaughan Williams on his way to greatness". Although the Mass lacks the wistful, the mellow and the deceptively gently curling reflection of the mature composer, it unassumingly invites us to perceive and appreciate his ability to mould a genre of supreme historical importance to his own ends.

Copyright © 2015, Mark Sealey