VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: A Cambridge Mass; PARRY: Blest Pair of Sirens – Olivia Robinson, sop./ Rebecca Lodge, contralto/ Christopher Bowen, tenor/ Edward Price, bar./ Martin Ennis, organ/ The Bach Choir/ New Queen’s Hall Orch./ Alan Tongue – Albion Records ALBCD020, 56:13 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ***1/2:
It was 1897 when Vaughan Williams began the piece that was to serve as his “project” for the obtaining of a doctoral degree from Cambridge University. Two years later, it was completed, and two years after that the degree was indeed obtained. The composer was not one to make light of such awards, and remained quite proud of his achievement—and the appellation “Doctor”—for the rest of his life.
Many composers have completed works at an early age which still capture our attention now, and in fact are often worthy of their later-realized genius. Certainly Mozart and Mendelssohn at the same age have pieces to their credit, and the list of others stretches quite long. VW’s work is far from negligible—though it lay in the University library for more than a century, it was known, though not performed until conductor Tongue transcribed the 155 manuscript pages for performance and publication in 2011.
The piece is a three movement, nine section work that unusually starts with the “Credo”. It is magnanimous in its thrilling effects, and perhaps a little contrived in that there were certain things that had to be included in order to satisfy the examiners—one or more solo voices, a double chorus, canon, fugue, instrumental overture, interlude, and a large-scale “band”. This is quite a recipe for any young composer, but to squeeze this into a “mass” certainly required a lot of imagination, and perhaps some departures from a more normal liturgical routine had to be expected; for example, the purely instrumental “Offertorium”, and the inclusion of extended non-choral passages. Nevertheless, the piece has that distinctive Vaughan Williams sound to it, is quite affecting in many places, and is worthy to be heard, the first flush of fresh genius emanating from the campus setting that so inspired him.
Parry’s Blest Pair of Sirens, one of the bedrock pieces of English romanticism, and a great influence on Vaughan Williams who counted Parry as one of his mentors, is a setting of John Milton’s ode At a solemn Musick. Charles Stanford, who counted Parry as the greatest English composer since Purcell, commissioned the piece, and it was well received at the premiere; indeed, it has never left the repertory since. It serves as a nice foil for the Vaughan Williams, though the Mass doesn’t quite live up to Parry’s more famous opus. But you can hear cross currents as well, making for excellent filler.
The performances are more than proficient, energetic, committed, and obviously sung with a great deal of love and passion, even though there are a number of intonation slips, ensemble raggedness, and a not-always favorable recorded acoustic (these are concert performances). However these are minor considerations when one takes into account the importance of this premiere, and the historical significance of its appearance on the scene. No doubt there will be other, perhaps more polished readings in the future; but that will not detract from the achievement of Alan Tongue and his forces in this first recording.