Vaughan Williams: Sancta Civitas, Dona Nobis Pacem / David Hill

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VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Dona nobis pacem 1. Sancta Civitas 2 • David Hill, cond; 1 Christina Pier (sop); 2 Andrew Staples (ten); 1,2 Matthew Brook (bar);...

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Dona nobis pacem 1. Sancta Civitas 2 David Hill, cond; 1 Christina Pier (sop); 2 Andrew Staples (ten); 1,2 Matthew Brook (bar); 2 Winchester Cathedral Choristers; 2 Winchester College Choristers; Bach Choir; Bournemouth SO NAXOS 8.572424 (64:39 )

This release presents two of the great English composer’s most heartfelt statements of personal conviction: the 1936 Dona Nobis Pacem, his strongest statement on the depravity of war, and the visionary Sancta Civitas (1923–25), his clearest confession of personal faith. ( Pace Bertrand Russell, Vaughan Williams prefaced the score of Sancta Civitas , which drew heavily on Revelations , with Plato’s quote of Socrates from Phaedo , “A man of sense will not insist that things are exactly as I have described them. But I think he will believe that something of the kind is true of the soul and her habitations,” and reportedly considered it his favorite choral work.) It is a combination that seemed odd at first, as others have opted for more stylistically consonant combinations, but as an overview of the soul of the man it is perfect. The horror of war and the destiny of the soul are themes to which Ralph Vaughan Williams returned continually throughout his life and these two works are the purest statements of those preoccupations.

This CD duplicates one of the finest RVW choral discs ever produced, the 1992 Richard Hickox recording of these two works. (And I say that as a great admirer of the late-1960s recordings of these works by Boult and Willcocks, respectively.) The Hickox, which seems to have come and gone quickly in the U.S., is still very much available from English sources, and for little more than the cost of this Naxos disc. So this new release is competing with a legend and without the usual Naxos price advantage.

As it happens, comparison finds this a close thing, as Naxos offers superb performances, matching, in many ways, the strengths of the earlier EMI. As with the Hickox, the central asset is the alert and impassioned conducting of the conductor. In fact, David Hill’s generally quicker tempos reveal an appealing vigor and backbone in the works altogether fitting to the rugged verse of Walt Whitman and the apocalyptic vision of St. John of Patmos. Listen, for instance, to the noble, steady pacing of RVW’s “Dirge for Two Veterans,” or to the ecstatic “Nation Shall Not Lift Up Sword Against Nation.” The Hickox excels in shear orchestral virtuosity, in the rich underpinning of the organ, and in atmosphere and gravitas—I prefer, for instance, Hickox’s unhurried ascent to the majestic final chorus of the Sancta Civitas . Hill’s recording impresses with his thrilling choruses, nuanced and exemplary in diction (though Hickox’s choruses hardly disappoint, either), in the clarity and spaciousness of the recording of the multilayered Sancta Civitas —much like Britten’s later War Requiem in its use and positioning of multiple choruses and ensembles—and in two of his soloists. Yvonne Kenny is brilliant for Hickox, but Christina Pier, a new name to me, provides similar purity of tone and contained power with a pleading quality that is very moving. Philip Langridge is, as always, a superlative artist in the Hickox, but Andrew Staples more easily sings the tenor’s 21 syllables in their uncomfortably high tessitura.

For some collectors, however, the deciding factor may be the bass-baritone soloist. Matthew Brook, who sang a very fine Friar Tuck in the recent Chandos Ivanhoe , is somewhat miscast here. There are several issues: His grainy, rather gruff vocal quality does not lend itself naturally to the nobility of much of the writing; parts of “Reconciliation” lie uncomfortably high and he strains for them, and softer sections of “Oh Man, Greatly Beloved” and “I Was in the Spirit” are almost crooned. Though Brook’s response to text is intelligent throughout, some consonants are oddly elongated for emphasis. And comparison is not kind, as he is up against the nonpareil skills of the young Bryn Terfel in the Hickox. The Welshman’s refulgent tone, shaping of phrases, and projection of the text are simply stunning. (The texts, by the way, are not printed, but may be downloaded from the Naxos Web site.)

Still, as a whole, this new Naxos release has many virtues and no debilitating liabilities, and ought to be acquired by anyone with an interest in this repertoire. It is powerful, lucid, beautifully sung, and vividly recorded. Of course, the Hickox should be in every Vaughan Williams collection. If I had to choose one, therefore, it would be the Hickox, but choosing is not my recommendation.

FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames


These are beautiful works, and they receive very good performances. David Hill digs into the war music of Dona nobis pacem quite effectively (save for the missing tam-tam at the climax of Beat! beat! drums!), the choirs sing very cleanly, and soprano Christina Pier is the best of the three soloists on this disc. The two men, while not bad, have what you might call "oratorio" voices--good as regards declamation, but not especially attractive as pure singing. Still, they get the job done, and in Sancta Civitas the interplay between the various on-stage and distant choirs is particularly well judged. The latter really is a masterpiece, a gorgeous work that, perhaps because it's not as physical and hard-hitting, gets less play than its disc mate.

Naxos' engineering is very good in terms of balances between chorus and orchestra, but the soloists sometimes sound as if they are operating in a different acoustic, with an odd halo around the voice. On the whole, though, this disc represents good value, and is at least as successful as the competition on EMI (mostly) and a few other labels.

--David Hurwitz,

Product Description:

  • Release Date: April 27, 2010

  • UPC: 747313242474

  • Catalog Number: 8572424

  • Label: Naxos

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Ralph Vaughan Williams

  • Conductor: David Hill

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Bach Choir, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Winchester Cathedral Choir, Winchester College Chapel Quiristers

  • Performer: Andrew Staples, Christina Pier, Matthew Brook