Vaughan Williams – Sacred Choral Music

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COMPOSERS: Vaughan Williams
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: Three Choral Hymns; A Vision of Aeroplanes; Mass in G minor; The Voice out of the Whirlwind; Valiant-for-truth; The Souls of the Righteous etc
PERFORMER: The Choir of Clare College, Cambridge/Timothy Brown; James McVinnie, Ashok Gupta (organ)
CATALOGUE NO: 8.572465

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Yes, Vaughan Williams did sometimes repeat himself. But given how much he wrote it’s striking how many of his works, large- and small-scale, stand on their own, essentially unrepeatable.

There are two fine examples here. Vision of Aeroplanes, based on a particularly hallucinogenic passage from the biblical book of Ezekiel, pitches some of Vaughan Williams’s most hard-edged choral writing against an astringently brilliant organ part – full marks to organist James McVinnie for his exhilarating, switchback-ride performance here, and compliments to the Naxos sound team for achieving clarity within a faithful representation of the St John’s College acoustic. 

The better-known Mass in G minor used to be dismissed (by some) as a musical equivalent of suburban mock-Tudor architecture, but with time its purity and originality of style have come to be more justly appreciated. The Clare College
Choir version isn’t the most beautiful sounding recording – the Hickox/LSO Chorus Chandos version scoops up the laurels there. But what impresses about this performance is the exceptional sense of shape, both in overview and in tiny details.

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At times the long sweeping lines bring to mind the paintings of William Blake – as, for more obvious reasons, does The Voice out of the Whirlwind. On the face of it this is a relatively straightforward reworking of the ‘Galliard of the Sons of the Morning’ from the Blake-based ballet Job, yet in spirit the music is transformed into something new. Similarly Valiant-for-truth is so much more than a satellite of The Pilgrim’s Progress; in fact in its modest way it makes it point more tellingly than the opera does. This comes with a strong recommendation. Stephen Johnson