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CD Review

English Romantic Choral Music

  • Ralph Vaughan Williams:
  • Prayer to the Father of Heaven
  • A Vision of Aeroplanes
  • Lord, Thou hast been our Refuge
  • Herbert Howells:
  • A Sequence for St. Michael
  • The House of the Mind
  • Requiem
Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, trumpet
Harry Bickett, organ
The Finzi Singers/Paul Spicer
Chandos CHAN9019 67:18
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Strong performances of works off the beaten path.

Great Britain has always amazed me for its number of first-class choirs and vocal ensembles, especially the latter. By no means do the King's Singers and the King's College Choir stand alone. Paul Spicer formed his Finzi Singers as an ad hoc group for a specific occasion. He did so well that the group continued, specializing in the choral music of twentieth-century English composers.

It's hard to say which came first: great choral music or great choirs to sing it. However, one notes a symbiosis between great choirs and great choral music. British choral music stands among the best of the century, with lots of composers – and not just the first bench, either – contributing masterpieces, with Vaughan Williams and Howells writing more than their share. I find it especially interesting that none of these works rely on an established manner. Every one of them either extends the composer's idiom or explores new avenues. If you expect, for example, Vaughan Williams Pastoralism (pat. pend.), these pieces will disappoint you or at least throw you a sucker's curve.

Lord, Thou hast been our Refuge comes from 1921 and appears as a Vaughan Williams tribute to Bach. Over a modal parlando setting of Psalm 90, Vaughan Williams juxtaposes the St. Anne chorale to Isaac Watts's hymn-paraphrase of the psalm, similar to several Bach cantata movements and organ preludes where a chorale tune steals in from left field against an apparently incompatible aria. The piece ends in contrapuntal fireworks (echoes and re-echoes of the tune at "Our shelter from the stormy blast"). Vaughan Williams busts the choir's chops. Most of the piece is a cappella, until at long last the orchestra (in this performance, the organ and the trumpet) finally joins in. The choir had better keep in tune. It's an ingenious piece, but not necessarily a successful one. Unlike Bach, the two planes of musical activity never really mesh. The modal chanting has nothing to do with the rather conventional harmonization of St. Anne, and the finale, a musical extension of the chorale, seems tacked on because no previous development sets it up.

Vaughan Williams and Britten had little use for each other's music, although the older composer recognized Britten's achievement in opera. Britten throughout his life projected an Oedipal drama on the figure of his predecessor. He consciously shaped his career to supplant Vaughan Williams as The English Composer and, for a time, succeeded before he, in turn, was superseded. As time goes by, these fights have lost their juice, since the careers of both men are long gone and we can concentrate only their work. These days, one can like both composers without inviting scorn. All the more curious, then, that in 1948 Vaughan Williams should come up with Prayer to the Father of Heaven, an explicit tribute to his teacher, Hubert Parry. Parry had encouraged Vaughan Williams to write choral music "as befits an Englishman and a democrat," advice that Vaughan Williams certainly took to heart. He owed Parry even more than that, I think: a certain take on the music of Brahms and a distinctly English type of exploring mind, and not just in music – a certain awareness of and allegiance to tradition and a commitment to finding what was "characteristic" (a favorite word of both composers) about one's artistic personality, an aesthetic imperative to "Know thyself." Nevertheless, while the printed dedication may point to Parry, the music itself points to Britten. One hears voicings and a certain acid harmony atypical of Vaughan Williams but right up Britten's street, particularly a work like Britten's Chorale after an Old French Carol (1944). One still hears plenty of Vaughan Williams, including the strong attraction to "magic modulations" pivoting around common notes (C Major to E Flat Major, pivoting on G, for example), and the concern for "natural" speech rhythms.

The eccentrically-named A Vision of Aeroplanes from 1956 sets the famous "wheel within wheels" passage of Ezekiel in a language very similar to the Seventh and Ninth Symphonies. Apparently the chapter prodded Vaughan Williams to think of a technologically-primitive description of an airplane. Although Vaughan Williams remained throughout his long life at the very least an agnostic, he considered the King James Bible among the glories of English literature and thus fair game for texts, but this meant that he felt no need to score religious points. The motet needs a virtuoso choir as well as a virtuoso organist, since the main musical imagery seems to be that of a whirlwind of faces and voices.

Herbert Howells has written so much choral music, Paul Spicer, an acknowledged authority and author of a 1998 book-length study, may be the only person who knows anything close to all of it. Howells experienced two life-altering events. First, he heard the première of Vaughan Williams' Tallis Fantasia, which changed the direction of his music without him falling into the trap of slavishly imitating the older man or of establishing a "one-size-fits-all" style. Second, his son Michael died of polio at age nine. Howells, never all that gregarious, withdrew even further. He continued to compose but often refused to let out what he'd done, especially those works created in response to Michael's death.

The Requiem may well be Howells's masterpiece. It eschews the traditional Latin sequence for a series of mainly English texts which sound the note of consolation: Salvator mundi (in English), Psalm 23, the traditional Requiem aeternam, Psalm 121, and "I heard a voice from heaven." The consolation lies almost entirely with the words. The music weeps from unbearable grief. Howells kept it in his drawer. He used it as the basis of his large oratorio Hymnus Paradisi (1938), and then kept that in a drawer as well, until Vaughan Williams and Gerald Finzi persuaded him to allow a performance in 1950. The original, however, written in 1936, the composer didn't let out until 1980. Listening to it, one can understand why. This is music of lacerated emotions. He probably couldn't stand to hear it.

As Spicer points out, one finds the core of the work in the two different settings of the Requiem aeternam, separated by Psalm 121, "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills." In the first, the singers call for eternal rest for the dead, but with the unspoken longing for their own respite from sorrow. Even the brighter moments of the piece proclaim a hope rather than something actually there. The second setting begins even more austerely than the first, but it manages to come to some sort of solace as the melody settles into a downy, dissonant cloud at the end. Howells's Requiem ends in this sort of ambiguity.

Howells's grieving comes out in other works as well, even those not directly connected with the death of his son. A Sequence for St. Michael (1961), an elaborate motet twelve minutes long, essentially praise of the archangel, nevertheless opens with a howl of dissonance on the words "Michael, Michael."

Howells loved church architecture and felt especially close to the cathedrals of the Three Choirs Festival: Worcester, Hereford, and his native Gloucester. He referred to churches as "houses of the mind," so the large anthem The House of the Mind from 1954 should tip us off to the special nature of this piece. For one thing, you can't imagine it being done in anything but a large church. The sonorities soar out to fill up the space. For me, this piece shows the strong influence of Vaughan Williams, not only in an idiom that mixes pentatonic melodic ideas with acerbic chromatic harmonies, but more importantly in its blend of sensual textures with mystical intensity, as in Vaughan Williams' Flos campi.

All of this music demands a top-notch choir, and the Finzi Singers certainly qualify. They do almost all of this as well as it can be done. I think they better in the Requiem Matthew Best's Corydon Singers on Hyperion. Their pitch is so dead on that in the second Requiem aeternam, I'm not sure whether the faint fifth sounding above the octave opening is very soft sopranos or a natural harmonic. Their sound is vibrant and alive, although (strictly a matter of preference) they lack the unearthly blend of the Dale Warland Singers and Conspirare. Their diction is sharp enough to overcome the richly-reverberant church acoustic of London's St. Alban's most of the time. Spicer gives the best readings by far of the Vaughan Williams pieces, and the Howells (which I don't know as well) never fall below excellent. If you haven't bought it yet, a winner of a disc.

Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz