Five Mystical Songs CD Review – MusicWeb International

I was delighted to receive this new CD from the Vasari Singers because I’ve admired a good number of their releases in the past. Though their recorded repertoire is wide, they’ve consistently demonstrated a propensity for British music, as is the case here.

There are some very welcome selections in this programme. I was very glad to encounter Harold Darke’s O gladsome light, a work I don’t recall hearing before. It’s a beautiful, thoughtful piece for unaccompanied choir, although Darke builds the work to a stirring conclusion. Backhouse and his choir do it very well. If the Darke was new to me, the same is not true of Patrick Hadley’s My beloved spake, which I first sang in my school choir, decades ago. It’s a ravishing, ecstatic piece and the Vasari Singers do full justice to its beauties. They’re equally successful in Howells’ Like as the hart, another piece suffused with ecstasy. If there’s a finer tune in the Anglican repertoire than the gorgeous opening melody, I’ve yet to encounter it. It comes over really well here; throughout the piece the Vasari Singers offer smooth, full vocal lines and expertly balanced textures.

Elgar is represented twice in the programme. Give unto the Lord is a splendid anthem, full of grandeur and drama. For reasons to do with the recorded sound, to which I’ll come later, I don’t think the piece comes across with quite enough impact on this occasion but that’s no fault of the choir who turn in a performance that is clearly committed; they also capture the poetry in the more reflective episodes. I’m afraid I can’t be anywhere near as enthusiastic about Lux aeterna, a piece for unaccompanied choir in which John Cameron married the music of ‘Nimrod’ from the ‘Enigma’ Variations with words from the Latin Mass for the Dead. I’ve heard it before and I don’t think it works at all. I’m rarely convinced by choral re-workings of orchestral or instrumental pieces anyway, but here Cameron’s work seems to be at complete odds with Elgar’s music: Elgar did not design ‘Nimrod’ as an elegy; its subject, A. E. Jaeger was very much alive at the time. The fact that the Vasari Singers do the piece very nicely and that Jeremy Backhouse adopts a suitably flowing tempo doesn’t alter my view that Lux aeterna is fundamentally misconceived.

Samuel Sebastian Wesley is also represented twice. Wash me thoroughly is a sincere and well-crafted composition but it doesn’t strike me as desperately interesting, even in a good performance such as this. Blessed be the God and Father, which is on a more ambitious scale, is much more rewarding, both to sing and to hear. It’s let down a little by the Mendelssohnian ending but the opening music is imposing and the central section (‘Love one another’) is charmingly sincere. This section features a solo by a soprano who is, so far as I can see, uncredited. That’s a pity, because she sings very well indeed and I enjoyed the pure sound of her voice.

Vaughan Williams has the lion’s share of the programme. O clap your hands opens proceedings. This is another piece where a bit more impact in the sound would have been welcome but the performance itself is suitably joyful. The little gem that is O taste and see comes off very well and here I think the choir is ideally balanced; indeed, the balance adds to the magic. Crowning the programme, though, is the performance of Five Mystical Songs. In November 2019 I had the very good fortune to sing in a performance of this work in which the soloist was Roderick Williams. I hugely admired his singing on that occasion and it’s a delight to hear this performance when I can just sit back and enjoy everything without worrying about having to concentrate on the choral entries. This performance has an organ accompaniment which, we learn in the booklet, was “created from the score” by Martin Ford. Anyone who might be worried about the lack of orchestra on this occasion need not worry; Ford’s organ realisation of the orchestral score seems to me to be a complete success and he plays with utmost sensitivity – and with brio in the concluding ‘Antiphon’.

Williams’ delivery of the opening phrases in ‘Easter’ (‘Rise heart, thy Lord is risen’) is elevated and holds out the promise of a distinguished performance. That promise is amply fulfilled; his singing – and that of the choir – is eloquent. If anything, ‘I got me flowers’ is even better. I admired the perfect way in which Williams delivers the melismas that recur throughout the vocal line – he’s equally admirable in this respect in ‘The Call’. There’s no other word than rapt to describe the way the third stanza of ‘I got me flowers’ is performed here: Williams, supported by the mystic choir behind him, distils a very special atmosphere. I love the performance of ‘Love bade me welcome’ where Williams’ singing is lyrical and inward. The way he sings this song is an object lesson in how to deliver the meaning of the words without any unwarranted exaggeration; he simply caresses George Herbert’s words. His contribution ends with an exquisite account of ‘The Call’, after which the Vasari Singers treat us to a festive performance of ‘Antiphon’. However, the somewhat distanced balance of the choir, which served us so well in the first four songs, tends to lessen their impact in this joyful final song. The Five Mystical Songs have had some distinguished exponents over the years, with John Shirley-Quirk and Sir Thomas Allen occupying prime positions in the pantheon, but having heard Roderick Williams sing these wonderful songs several times over the years, I’m inclined to think that no one has quite matched his eloquence, understanding and tonal beauty. This wonderful performance by soloist, choir and organist is, by itself, worth the price of the disc and anyone who cares about the Five Mystical Songs should make sure they hear it; it’s touched by greatness.

This disc represents a fine addition to the Vasari Singers’ discography. The programme is well-chosen and nicely varied and the choir, expertly prepared and conducted by Jeremy Backhouse, is on fine form throughout. I’ve referred to Martin Ford’s playing in Five Mystical Songs; he’s equally fine in all his other contributions.

The recording was made by producer Adrian Peacock, who regularly works with the choir, and engineer Dave Rowell. I’m not sure that the sound is entirely successful. I had to turn up the volume on my amplifier more that I would have expected to do, even when listening through headphones. The organ is very well conveyed and Roderick Williams is convincingly in the foreground in the Five Mystical Songs. However, the choir is slightly distanced. I hasten to say that I’m sure this is a truthful representation of the balance in the recording venue but I would have liked it if the choir’s sound had more impact. That’s especially the case in such items as Give unto the Lord, the opening of My beloved spake and the concluding ‘Antiphon’ in Five Mystical Songs. Tonbridge School Chapel is a favourite recording location for the Vasari Singers and my recollection is that in previous discs their sound had more presence and was just a bit further forward. However, other listeners’ systems may produce different results and, in any case, don’t let this reservation deter you from acquiring a fine collection of British choral music performed by an excellent choir.

John Quinn, MusicWeb International

© Jeremy Backhouse