Classic FM – March 2004
New legs for a disc issued on the short-lived United label, more attractively packaged than before. The amateur Vasari Singers are astounding in Howells’ haunting Requiem. Andrew Stewart Gramophone – April 2004 Beautifully controlled singing that reaches the heart of these deeply moving works. Both Martin’s Mass and Howells’ Requiem were regarded by their composers as being too deeply personal utterances to be allowed into the public domain and both were withheld from publication for 37 and 45 years respectively. Consequently any choir attempting to commit these works to disc need to handle the task with exceptional care and sensitivity. There’s no question about the care and sensitivity of Jeremy Backhouse’s approach with his excellent Vasari Singers: when the disc first appeared it was nominated for a Gramophone award. Rightly so, for not only is it a stunning display of beautifully measured and controlled a cappella singing, but it reaches the very heart of these deeply moving works. However, in the intervening years new competition has appeared and, in the case of Franck Martin’s glorious mass, James O’Donnell and the Westminster Cathedral Choir produced such an astonishingly powerful performance that their disc not only won a Gramophone Award but was voted record of the year. What made their performance so compelling was not the kind of close, almost loving intimacy which is the hall-mark of the Vasari performance, but an almost impersonal detachment which renders the emotional impact of the work all the more intense. Things are very different in the case of the two Howells pieces. Again, stiff competition from another award-winning disc has appeared in the intervening years, but in many ways this music seems more the natural territory of the Vasari Singers. With its somewhat peculiar mix of cantata (parts did find their way into the composer’s large-scale Hymnus Paradisi) liturgical psalm and plainchant (deliciously intoned by Mark Johnson) the Requiem is a remarkably complex work requiring not just the restraint of a choir well used to singing liturgical music but a degree of musical, vocal and emotional maturity – not to mention soloists of the calibre Jeremy Backhouse has here been able to draw from – which for all their excellence, the young men and boys of St John’s Cambridge cannot begin to match. Just listen to that final, truly profound chord from the Requiem to have the point driven home. Marc Rochester The Independent on Sunday, 29th December 2003 *** Former choral scholars play such a large part in professional music that we forget those who go on to more sensible careers. Where do they end up? Singing for love, not money, in a handful of excellent chamber choirs like The Vasari Singers. The sole fault in this polished disc is that time seems to have stood still, and not just in terms of the repertoire. The clear tone of singers in their late teens and early twenties can sound pinched 10 years later. But it’s not too fanciful to imagine that the life-experiences of older singers will enrich Howells’s Requiem: a work written by a bereaved father. If Howells’s Psalm 23 brings a lump to the throat, its very intimate grief contrasts with the intense drama of Take him, earth, for cherishing, which Howells wrote in memory of John F Kennedy. This is the Vasari Singers’ finest moment, and if Frank Martin’s over-written Mass fails to match this, it’s not the fault of a highly conscientious ensemble. AP The Scotsman, January 2004 *** The pairing of unaccompanied choral music by Englishman Herbert Howells and Swiss composer Frank Martin is an inspired one. The acerbic rhythms and harmonies of Martin’s 1926 "Mass" offer an astringent foil to the cushioned late Romantic glow of Howells’s 1935 "Requiem". Generally sound performances by the London-based Vasari Singers under director Jeremy Backhouse. The inclusion of Howell’s 1964 "Motet on the Death of President Kennedy" adds to the meditative tone that colours an enjoyable CD. Kenneth Walton Gramophone – Classical Good CD Guide 1996 Vasari succeed admirably … It is beautifully done, but the singers also have athletic virtuosity. This is choral singing of a high order. Michael Oliver Penguin Guide to Compact Discs Yearbook 1995/96 Vasari, a choir conducted by Jeremy Backhouse, are absolutely first class and give a well-nigh exemplary performance, possibly finer than its immediate rivals. The present account is quite masterly in every respect and Vasari get remarkably fine results. A very convincing performance and an exemplary recording. BBC Music Magazine 1994 … a versatile, mixed-voice group, which attractive tone, painstaking musicianship and the ability to conjure up some splendid, rich sonorities. What is most satisfying is the quality of the breath control, with shifts of dynamic beautifully controlled. A luminous, pliant reading, full of awe and wonder … their rendering has ‘soul’. Roderic Dunnett BBC Music Magazine, March 2004 The common ground between these two discs of unaccompanied choral music is the Frank Martin Mass (1922-6), a contemplative work withheld from performance for some 40 years. It shares this private creative stance with the Howells Requiem (1932-6), a work that fed into his great Hymnus Paradisi, and was itself not published till 1981. The Vasari Singers’ performances benefit from clear tone, but they are not always impeccably in tune and both pieces need more dynamic variety and fluidity to bring them alive. The sound quality is also less than spacious and resonant than that on the The New London Singers’ disc. Their performance of the Martin has neater attack, a firmer bass line and more largesse in the phrasing. Apart from a sticky passage in the Sanctus, their timing is better too and together with their conductor they really make the pieces’ textures open out. Instead of Howells they opt for Ildebrando Pizzetti’s rhapsodic eight-part Requiem, an exact contemporary of Martin’s Mass but a work of darker sonority and more inherent drama. It, too, benefits from the choir’s richer sound and tighter discipline, as well as from the wider perspective of the recording. These same pieces were previously coupled by James O’Donnell and the choir of Westminster Cathedral, whose versions still have the edge. For the Howells, a characteristically personal and resourceful work, try St John’s College Cambridge under Christopher Robinson. George Hall ClassicsToday.com Artistic quality 10/10, Sound quality 10/10 In 1994 Jeremy Backhouse and his Vasari Singers recorded Herbert Howells’ Requiem and Frank Martin’s Mass for a British label called United. The packaging touted its special "Sensaura" engineering–a recording system that "makes use of the natural hearing cues that we all use in everyday life to determine the direction, height, and distance of sound sources." Here is that same recording, and whatever "Sensaura" was, it still sounds pretty terrific 10 years later in its new incarnation on Signum. The performances aren’t too shabby either, equalling my long-standing reference version of the Howells by the superb Corydon Singers. Backhouse understands the importance of pacing in the Requiem, giving properly measured reflection to the two critical Requiem aeternam movements–and the choir follows his lead, perfectly maintaining the tension with impressively seamless legato and expertly executed harmonic transitions. In the slow, meditative passages, we hear some of Howells’ more intimate expressions (because of its deeply personal provenance, he withheld the work’s publication for nearly 50 years) informed by soprano voices sensuously, sensitively floating their line above the rest of the choir’s warm-colored harmonies. Similarly, the work’s more emphatic parts are delivered meaningfully, and the result is a very satisfying and moving rendition of this all-too-rarely-heard masterpiece. By no means a lesser work, Martin’s Mass (which he also withheld from performance for 40 years) receives the same care and respect for its underlying personal/spiritual symbolism as the Howells, its dynamic power and quiet intimacy fully realized by this first-class ensemble. And placed between the two big works, Howells’ memorial to John F. Kennedy, the motet Take him, earth, for cherishing, proves an ideal and memorable program filler. If you missed this the first time around–consider yourself lucky to have a second chance.