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 Wagner.
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 gems.

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 the reasons 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 forget.

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, it "shakes 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 hearing.

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 Chorale 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 runs counter 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 every last legitimate drop of drama. To me, it ranks with the recordings of Walton himself (a good baseline), Paul Daniel (great budget alternative), and, 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 bloodless 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, which 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 water. 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)