WALTON: Belshazzar's Feast. BACH: Cantata No. 4 "Christ
lag in Todesbanden".
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Mass in g.
John Cameron (baritone); Doralene McNelly (soprano); Alice Ann Yates (alto);
Michael Carolan (tenor); Charles Scharbach (bass); Paul Salamunivich (cantor);
Roger Wagner Chorale; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Concert Arts Orchestra/Roger
Pristine Classics PACO 071 TT: 78:52.
(Available from www.pristineclassical.com)
Glory, glory, glory. Pristine restores three classic performances of
three masterworks to the catalogue in vastly improved sound. If you
look at the
label's catalogue, you can't believe that most of its offerings were
ever out of print. The Pristine folks have a real gift for unearthing
I'm old enough to have owned all three works in their original LP incarnations,
and have been waiting, like a fool, for EMI to reissue them on CD. So
bravo to Pristine.
Although I like the work quite a lot, I've never quite understood why
Walton's Belshazzar's Feast (1931) shook up England so much. None of
advanced have ever made much sense to me. Vaughan Williams's Sancta
Civitas (1925) and Holst's Hymn of Jesus (1920) both went beyond the Edwardian
oratorio in their swifter pacing and introduction of a Modernist idiom.
Constant Lambert's Rio Grande introduced jazz rhythms and pop idiom as
early as 1927, and even Walton had already done this in Façade and
in Portsmouth Point, both from the Twenties. Perhaps no one had developed
this mix in a Biblical oratorio. Fortunately, however, its innovations
matter less than its considerable musical quality. From first notes to
last, the score brims full of drama and glittering sound, some of which,
like the accompaniment to the hand that writeth upon the wall, you can't
Bach's Passion Cantata No. 4 "Christ lag in Todesbanden" (Christ
lay in the bonds of death) was the first I ever heard, and I heard it in
this performance. I think it one of his best and so one of anybody's best.
Most scholars assign it an early date, based mostly on stylistic evidence.
It is one of the cantatas whose every movement rests on the eponymous chorale.
The cantata moves from the darkness of the tomb to elation as we realize
that we must die in order to ascend into heaven. Appropriately, the earlier
movements are gloomy and inward. The middle movement, a fugue, describes
the war in Heaven between Christ and Satan, in which the mood pivots, until
we end up with a jubilant gigue and a triumphant chorale. Of the many wonderful
features in this cantata, Bach's settings of the final word of each chorale
verse -- "Alleluia" -- ingeniously vary from movement to movement.
I've regarded this cantata as one of my favorites for a very long time.
EMI/Capital/Angel coupled the Bach and the Vaughan Williams, and VW did
more than hold his own. How many composers can you say that of? As much
as Bach impressed me, Vaughan Williams's Mass in g, a masterpiece of
choral literature, gobsmacked me. Wagner's performance introduced me
to the work.
I had never heard music of such intense mysticism before. Byrd's masses
obviously influenced VW here, but you get no whiff of antiquarianism.
Instead, the work seems to stand outside time. In Michael Kennedy's phrase,
hands across the centuries."
In many ways, the Mass is the choral equivalent of the Tallis Fantasia:
a double choir (in this case, of voices rather than strings) contrasts
with a solo quartet. But the Mass looks forward as well as back. The
opening to Sanctus section, for example, looks toward the first bars
of the Symphony
No. 3, while some of the counterpoint of the Gloria and Credo anticipate
passages in the Symphony No. 4. The most obvious feature of the Mass,
its modalism, tricks the ear, in that it doesn't follow Renaissance principles
but instead blends those with Impressionist harmonies and modulations, à la
Debussy and Ravel, thus allowing Modern development, as in VW's own Third
and Fifth Symphonies. Nevertheless, the technical means serve expressive
power. After an atheist phase in university, VW settled into a lifelong
agnosticism. For him, Christianity shaped the culture in which he found
himself, and it raised questions that obviously attracted him all his life.
A major theme throughout his work is the journey of the soul. It shows
up early, middle, and late in scores like Toward the Unknown Region,
Sancta Civitas, Job, and his great summing-up, the "morality" of The
Pilgrim's Progress. The Mass, despite its obvious Christian basis, probably
didn't appeal to VW as such, but as a broader contemplation of spirit.
As with Bach, you become a believer, at least as long as the music lasts.
The Kyrie seems to steal in out of normal time and space and inexorably
weaves its way to your insides. The Gloria and the Credo, essentially political
documents in the history of the Church, for once express the fullness of
heaven and the vigor of faith. Even as solutions to the problems of setting
those texts, they are masterpieces, coherently linking wildly disparate
statements. The Sanctus and Benedictus meditate on ritual and blessedness,
while the Agnus Dei dramatically pleads for mercy and peace and returns
us to the Kyrie, which flows back to its mysterious source, somewhere beyond
Roger Wagner was to choral practice on the West Coast what Robert Shaw
(ironically, a native Californian) was to the East: the man who set the
sound and the standard. While Shaw went for an open, natural, and clear
choral tone, Wagner aimed at a rich one, like that of French opera choirs,
but with better diction and rhythm. To get that sound, he wasn't afraid
to manipulate the music, putting strong mezzos in the soprano section,
for example, or doubling the basses with either discreet cello or organ
pedal. You can hear the latter in the Mass. He also fiddled with the
recorded sound. No choir encountered live sounded like the Roger Wagner
in front of mikes, not even the Chorale itself. I think of him as the
Stokowski of choral conductors.
This CD presents three of his finest performances, every single one of
them, as far as I know (and I've looked hard) unavailable on disc until
now. It's not just their great choral sound that recommends them, but
their interpretive coherence and rhythmic excitement as well. The Bach
to present-day notions of Historically-Informed, and I couldn't care
less. Wagner gets the emotional points across. It's one of the more intensely-heated
performances on record. The Walton dances like no other and squeezes
last legitimate drop of drama. To me, it ranks with the recordings of
Walton himself (a good baseline), Paul Daniel (great budget alternative),
best of all, André Previn. Shaw's recording to me comes across as
a little blah, despite impressive sonics.
However, the Vaughan Williams is simply the finest recording of the Mass
I know. British groups have generally disappointed me, having heard Roger
Wagner first. In many ways, it comes down to rhythm. Vaughan Williams
actually swings in this score, and British choirs don't. They tend toward
piety. I think the work really benefits from Wagner's point of view outside
the English cathedral tradition.
As I said, I owned the LPs (three of them, since I wore out my first
copy of the Bach/Vaughan Williams) and remember the sonics quite well,
were out of EMI's norm. Here, they emphasized the bass, to the point
where in some places you might as well have listened with your head under
I suspect Wagner behind this change. Pristine has brightened the sound
considerably. One runs into an occasional constriction at the top at
high volume, but this occurred in the LP as well and far more noticeably. Pristine scores again.
S.G.S. (October 2012)