King's College Choir of Cambridge / Britten Sinfonia / Stephen Cleobury

Vaughan Williams: Dona Nobis Pacem; Bernstein: Chichester Psalms

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The pairing of religious pieces by Ralph Vaughan Williams (an atheist) and Leonard Bernstein (a Jew) is appealing; the Chichester Psalms of Bernstein are in Hebrew, but were commissioned for a cathedral performance. And the Vaughan Williams work has American content, in the form of texts by Walt Whitman. But the most unusual feature here is the paring-down of Vaughan Williams' gigantic, war-drenched Dona Nobis Pacem by Jonathan Rathbone. To remake 20th century works for new purposes is unconventional, but there are both practical and artistic justifications for what he has done. The Dona Nobis Pacem was written for the British choral-orchestral festival format of the middle 20th century, a phenomenon much less common than formerly. And both Vaughan Williams and Bernstein indicated the possibility of reduced scoring. Most important is that Rathbone's version of the Dona Nobis Pacem both matches the Bernstein Psalms in scope and makes musical sense: the work of the original's oversize brass and winds sections is done by the remaining brasses and the organ, whose role is substantially expanded, and the combination is imposing enough to carry the weight of the tragic wartime texts. The soloists, especially baritone Roderick Williams, are top-notch, and the only complaint is that the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, is actually a bit underpowered for even this reduced version of the Vaughan Williams; the men-and-boys group doesn't step out from its usual Renaissance and 20th century English cathedral mode. An intriguing and recommended experiment nonetheless.

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