Alan Tongue

Gentle Swagger

Vaughan Williams’s rediscovered work is a rich, rewarding treat

John Allison
A Cambridge Mass ****
Fairfield Halls, Croydon

Fifty-three years after the composer’s death. it’s not often we get to hear world premieres of music by Vaughan Williams. Especially not of works as substantial as A Cambridge Mass, a 45-minute score that counts as a missing link in the evolution of his early style. Edited by Alan Tongue, who conducted this first performance with the Bach Choir and New Queen’s Hall Orchestra in Croydon, it shows as clearly as anything what the composer was capable of before he found his personal ‘open air’ voice.

Completed in 1899, and the largest Vaughan Williams piece to predate the Sea Symphony, this newly disinterred work was never actually lost. Its is listed in Michael Kennedy’s catalogue of the composer’s music and had been preserved at Cambridge University, where Vaughan Williams submitted it in fulfillment of his doctorate. But no one had treated it seriously until Tongue set to work a few years ago, appropriately adding the Cambridge Mass title.

The sprawling ‘Credo’ that opens the work sets itself in motion with interjecting brass and choral outbursts, anticipating the start of A Sea Symphony.

With its double chorus and quartet of vocal soloists, the early piece also foreshadows the unaccompanied Mass in G minor of 1922 and there are striking melodic parallels between the Benedictus settings of these two works, with the first providing an early hint of Vaughan Williams’s visionary style.

This is a non-liturgical setting designed for the concert hall that has moments of vivid theatricality. The writing for double chorus (which found the Bach Choir on excellent form) is often rich, and some harmonies in the Sanctus are daring for English choral works of the time.

Composed soon after Williams returned from studies with Bruch in Berlin, the work also reflects the positive influence of Dvorak. And it is hard not to feel the spirit of Brahms in the gentle swagger of the purely orchestral ‘Offertorium: a very accomplished piece of writing that deserves to stand alone in its own right.

Maybe not a reclaimed masterpiece, A Cambridge Mass will still reward listeners as it begins its musical journey: next up, in Bath, in October, and then Massachusetts in January.