Brian Wilson
MusicWeb International
June 2015

Just as I was completing this review John Quinn beat me to the draw so I would normally have added a few words in my next Download News, but I decided to let the full review stand.

I have sometimes found myself slightly ambiguous about Vaughan Williams’s choral music: the Serenade to Music, for example, doesn’t do anything for me despite the fact that it sets some of Shakespeare’s most beautiful poetry, as spoken by a character whom I once played many years ago. Even the Five Mystical Songs need the right kind of performance, such as they receive on the Bryden Thomson recording for Chandos listed above, and his Five Tudor Portraits even more so. Hilary Davan Wetton, who produces a good performance of the Mystical Songs, fails to capture the rollicking spirit of the Tudor Portraits on a rare misfire from Hyperion. (CDH55004). Even Richard Hickox, my current recommendation for the Tudor Portraits (Chandos CHAN9593, with the beautiful Variants of Dives and Lazarus) doesn’t quite match Sir Adrian Boult—will someone please restore Boult’s EMI recording?

All these were somewhere in the back of my mind but it was the Hickox performance that I chose to listen to for comparison. It’s especially recommendable in that it now sells at budget price—you may well find it for less than the Naxos, which makes it all the more surprising that Qobuz are asking £9.09 for it as a download and not even offering the booklet.

Somewhere years ago I must have heard an insipid performance of Dona Nobis Pacem. It took the Hickox recording for me to realise what I had been missing and since then the other recordings that I’ve mentioned have all done the trick, too.

Andrew Litton on the new recording takes the opening Agnus Dei a good deal faster (2:59) than Hickox (4:01); though he’s closer to Thomson (3:32), Boult (3:31), Hill (3:26) and Vaughan Williams himself (3:22) that does look like dangerously fast on paper. In practice, however, this is a performance to equal any of these, not least for the beauty of the singing from Sarah Fox and the Colorado chorus. If there had been any doubt whether these American performers could capture the spirit of the quintessentially English Vaughan Williams, this movement dispels them from the word go. Unless I had sat watching the time tick by on Winamp, I would never have imagined that Litton despatches the Agnus Dei so quickly. Nor does Hickox seem to take one second too long—as always, timings are less important that a feeling for the music, such as Litton and Hickox both have.

Litton’s tempo for Beat! Beat! drums! is much closer to the general consensus; he and his forces give as powerful a performance of this section as any, with notable contributions from the timpani on a par with Hickox’s LSO. By now I was beginning to realise that this was going to be another version to add to my shortlist for this work.

I’ve already mentioned Sarah Fox’s contribution; Christopher Maltman is just as fine a soloist when he enters in Reconciliation. The two soloists are very well balanced against the chorus and orchestra, too, thanks to the performers themselves and the recording quality. Even when the soloists are singing most quietly, they remain perfectly audible.

In the rest of the work Litton tends to take the music a little faster than the others but never to its detriment. Overall my initial impression that this would become my one of my top choices has been fully borne out by this powerful performance, so it will remain only to decide whether I wish to listen to more Vaughan Williams or the new Stephen Hough Mass.

Thankfully Hyperion leave a long gap at the end of Dona nobis pacem before the beginning of the Stephen Hough Mass. Composed in 2006 for Westminster Cathedral, the Missa Mirabilis was orchestrated in 2012 and that is the version performed here. I enjoyed hearing it and shall undoubtedly return to it. I shall not analyse it in detail because John Quinn has already done that very well, other than to say that one reason for its appeal was its clear indebtedness to the religious music of Poulenc and to note the hint of Janácek in the Creed, which I see that JQ also noted—by which I don’t mean to imply any borrowings. Perhaps that echo of Janácek arose from a shared ambiguity about the central tenets of Christianity—what Hough describes in his notes as uncertainty about what he means when he recites these words at Mass, which suggests that he has more in common with Vaughan Williams’ Christian agnosticism than might be apparent.

With no benchmark, this seems as good a performance and recording as we are likely to get. The other Vaughan Williams recordings which I have mentioned are all good, but the new Hyperion scores by its availability in 24-bit format, where it’s most impressive.

The booklet is well up to Hyperion’s high standards, with excellent notes on the Vaughan Williams by Michael Kennedy and Stephen Hough’s own commentary on the Missa Mirabilis in which he explains how the title originated: in the middle of composition he escaped an 80 mph crash on the M1 motorway, a miracle indeed. One small point: the English translation is an odd hybrid affair, apparently a modernisation of the version in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer—different from the modern Roman and Anglican usage and sometimes at odds with the Latin.

This is a Dona nobis pacem to rival the best, even better recorded than other versions, with an interesting new work thrown in. Even the cover picture, Paul Klee’s The Lamb, is appropriate.