Vaughan Williams: Dona nobis Pacem

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Vaughan Williams
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: Dona nobis pacem; Sancta Civitas
PERFORMER: Christina Pier (soprano), Andrew Staples (tenor), Matthew Brook (baritone); Bach Choir; Winchester Cathedral Choristers; Winchester College Quiristers; Bournemouth SO/David Hill
CATALOGUE NO: 8.572424

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 Vaughan Williams’s two most consistently powerful and original large choral works make a natural coupling. They also draw together two of the most important strands in his thinking: the attempt to make sense of first hand experience of the horror of war, and what a friend called his ‘Christian agnosticism’ –  a belief that there was some kind
of transcendent meaning in religious writing, even if it wasn’t the dogmatic truth the churches claimed for it. 

Sancta Civitas (1923-5) is a deeply uncomfortable work, using some of the horrific imagery of the biblical Book of Revelation to confront the still-recent horrors of World War I. It contains some of Vaughan Williams’s finest music – especially the gripping opening. Dona nobis pacem (1936) is certainly the more compassionate of the two works – surely by this date Vaughan Williams did have sense of what was on the horizon?

But it’s the sense of foreboding that lingers here: the prayer for peace is impassioned enough, but whether consolation prevails in the end remains an open question. David Hill directs both these works with a strong sense of their overall shape. Dramatic as they are, it’s the sense of each as a symphonic journey that emerges most strongly, and convincingly.

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Anyone coming to these works for the first time through these recordings is unlikely to be disappointed. The only let-down for me is that the soloists, good as they are, don’t match up to Richard Hickox’s superb team on his outstanding version: Yvonne Kenny, a top-form Bryn Terfel and a tiny but telling contribution from the late and very much lamented Philip Langridge. In the end that disc remains top recommendation. Stephen Johnson