John Quinn
MusicWeb International
May 2015

It’s poignant to find that this new recording of Dona nobis pacem is introduced by a note written by the late Michael Kennedy. This must have been one of the last such pieces that he wrote; needless to say, it’s as perceptive and informative as was always the case with this writer.

Dona nobis pacem was written for the centenary of the Huddersfield Choral Society in 1936 and it reflects in the urgency of the writing and the choice of texts the storm clouds that were gathering in Europe at the time. Vaughan Williams had seen at first hand the savage effects of war during World War I and so his earnestness in urging peace cannot be doubted. The work is all too infrequently heard in the concert hall—goodness knows why—but the emotions it expresses are as relevant today, nearly 80 years after the work was written, as they were in the 1930s. It would be good to think that during the years 2014 and 2018, as we mark the centenary of the Great War there might be a reawakening of interest in this fine work.

Though it is too infrequently heard in concert Dona nobis pacem has been recorded several times. Among versions that I know of there is the excellent 1993 recording conducted by Matthew Best, also on Hyperion, which we reviewed as part of a collection but is also still available separately as CDA66655. Equally fine, though rather different in character, is the recording made in 1992 by Richard Hickox, which I think is still available at mid-price in EMI’s British Composers series (7547882). There’s also a Chandos recording conducted by Bryden Thomson, which I haven’t heard for years, and a very good Naxos version, coupled like the Hickox performance, with Sancta Civitas. Of special interest is the composer’s own broadcast performance, given within weeks of the first performance, which is available in an excellent transfer from SOMM. For the purposes of this review I’ve used Best and Hickox as comparators.

Litton’s performance is a good one. His soprano soloist, Sarah Fox is appealing in her quiet music and has the histrionic power for the more dramatic moments. There’s little to choose between her, Yvonne Kenny (Hickox) and Judith Howarth (Best). Christopher Maltman is predictably fine in the baritone solos. In the wonderful third movement, ‘Reconciliation’ he sings eloquently yet in a very natural way. Bryn Terfel, who sings for Hickox, is impressive yet he’s rather more histrionic, a style that suits well the more ‘public’ approach to the work of his conductor. Fine though the other two are, however, it’s Sir Thomas Allen on the Best recording who sweeps the board. He’s even more expressive that either of his colleagues in ‘Reconciliation’ and in the passage beginning 'For my enemy is dead' he deploys a veiled tone which makes the music unbearably moving. Whichever of these three versions I might choose to hear I would be very happy with the soloists.

The Colorado Symphony and Chorus play and sing with great commitment and no little finesse for Litton. However, the choir is up against some stiff competition. Best has the Corydon Singers. They sing incisively and though I suspect they may have been smaller in numbers than either of the two rival choirs there’s no lack of power and impact. In the soft passages, such as we find in ‘Reconciliation’ they offer particularly refined singing. Hickox has the LSO and its excellent Chorus. My goodness, the LSO brass and percussion are powerful and incisive in ‘Beat, beat drums!’ and in ‘Dirge for two veterans’ yet they never overwhelm the choir.

In comparison the Colorado choir doesn’t seem to me to be as well balanced. They appear to have been recorded slightly less prominently in the overall balance than either the Corydon Singers or the LSO Chorus. This has two consequences. Firstly, in the most fully-scored passages the brass and percussion of the Colorado Symphony dominate the proceedings. If you turn to the Hickox recording the LSO players don’t hold back but there’s no denying the impact made by the LSO Chorus. The second consequence of the Colorado balance is that in quiet passages it’s a little less easy to discern the choral lines in some of the quiet passages than is the case on the rival recordings: the subdued start of 'Nation shall not lift up a sword against nations' I the last movement is a case in point. There’s much to admire in the singing of the Colorado choir but I think that their two rivals are not only better balanced but also sing more incisively.

Andrew Litton has the measure of the score and gets a fine response from the orchestra. Hickox offers a somewhat more expansive, red-blooded view of the score than his rivals. It’s worthy of note that his reading plays for 38:47 whereas the overall timings of Best and Litton are pretty similar and Litton is within a whisker of RVW’s own timing of 34:32. I should add that even though, on paper, Hickox appears to be the slowest I don’t feel that his tempi are excessively broad at any point; I’m fully convinced by his reading.

All three performances have much to commend them. If I were forced to choose between them then I’d opt for Best with Hickox and then Litton close behind. However, matters are not that simple. Whereas both Best and Hickox offer all-Vaughan Williams programmes—and all their ‘fillers’ are very well done—Litton offers something very different in the shape of what I assume to be the first recording of Stephen Hough’s Missa Mirabilis for chorus and orchestra. I’ve heard some of Hough’s music before, mainly songs and piano music, but this is the first large-scale composition by him that has come my way.

The work originated in a commission from Martin Baker and the Choir of Westminster Cathedral to write a Mass for liturgical use. Its 'second incarnation', as the composer puts it in a booklet note, came as the result of a commission from the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, which premièred the orchestral version in March 2012. I don’t know if Hough altered the music in any way during this revision or 'merely' orchestrated the organ part but I should like to hear the original version too. It’s clear from his note in the booklet that Hough’s composition is the result of deep thought not only about matters musical but also about his Roman Catholic faith and how to marry the two elements together. The title of the work has a personal connection: at the time of writing the Mass Hough was lucky to emerge unscathed from what could have been a fatal car accident.

I found the Mass very impressive. I don’t know precisely what orchestral forces are used—I could find that information on either Hough’s website or that of his publisher. My guess is that a fairly conventional-sized orchestra is used but it’s skilfully deployed so that the orchestration remains light in texture, even at climaxes when the brass section is involved. In this performance I thought the Colorado choir was much more successfully balanced against the orchestra than was the case—to my ears—in the Vaughan Williams. I’m always wary of detecting influences of other composers, especially in new music, but I thought there was at times a French accent to the music; however, Hough is very much his own man.

The Kyrie is introduced by a strange, very quiet chorale on the horns. The composer says that what we hear in this movement is 'music of sweet, simple consolation.' It’s delicate music and unlike some other composers Hough hasn’t written an anguished plea for mercy yet it seems to me to be a penitential plea nonetheless, albeit a calm one. The opening and closing sections of the Gloria are bright, joyful and dancing in both the choral and orchestra writing. Hough refers to a rising scale in the organ part; here’s he’s given it to the clarinets and that gives the motif, which recurs several times, a decidedly perky character. At ‘Domine Jesu Christe’ the music softens and slows to introduce the more reflective ‘Qui tollis’ section. The lively, extrovert mood returns at ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’.

Hough makes it clear in his notes that for theological reasons the Credo lies at the heart of this Mass setting. Interestingly, he separates the sopranos and altos from the men’s voices and I think I’m right in saying that never—or rarely—do the twain meet in this movement. The men carry much of the 'narration' of the text of the Creed in sharply rhythmical music while the female voices frequently punctuate this text with interjections of the word 'Credo'—a device that reminded me slightly of the interjections of the word 'Veruju' in the comparable movement of Janáček's Glagolitic Mass. The central section of the movement is more lyrical in style. In the final section—from ‘Et interim venturus est’—the opening material returns but this time it’s more fully scored, the orchestration often piquant in timbre.

The Sanctus is grand and joyful whereas the Benedictus is much more subdued—'deliberately and sentimentally intimate', in Hough’s words. This Benedictus is a beautiful piece of writing and I love the little woodwind pay-off at the very end. The Agnus Dei has thematic links to the Credo. It starts quietly but gradually builds in intensity. The third and final ‘Agnus’, preceded by an urgent orchestral passage, is very powerful. Thereafter the music subsides to a quiet ending during the course of which we hear again the little horn chorale which opened the Kyrie.

This is an original, tightly organised and inventive setting of the Mass. It receives an excellent and very committed reading here; I enjoyed both music and performance very much. As I said, I should like to hear it also in its original form; Hyperion quite often record the Westminster Cathedral choir so perhaps a recording from that source might be feasible.