I first encountered the music of Robin Milford when his niece Marion, who was singing in a performance of my The Children of Húrin at Oxford, introduced me to some songs by her uncle. These were included on a Hyperion LP (A66105) devoted to the music of “Gerald Finzi and friends” (reissued CDH55084). This was the first time that any of Milford’s music had appeared on a commercial recording. Since then a number of CDs have appeared featuring various of his works, but these have all been miniatures. The mass included here is the largest-scale of his compositions to have been released, although there remain some other more substantial works which await recording. It was originally entitled Mass for Christmas morning, but after herRead more uncle’s death Marion Milford suggested the new title Mass for five voices since the work has no obvious Christmas connection. This is perhaps unfortunate, as the original title might have helped the work to gain a slightly higher profile. It does not appear to have received many performances (if any) since its first outing in 1953. In the event the work proves to be remarkably unsettling for Christmas festivities.
At the beginning of the Kyrie one immediately detects the influence of Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G minor; but almost at once one also finds a restlessness and experimental use of modality that at times recalls Delius, at other times the Holst of the Hymn of Jesus, and at other times seems to anticipate the liturgical passages in Britten’s War Requiem. This is highly unsettled - and unsettling music - troubled in spirit. The music often lurches unpredictably into new tonal centres, sometimes rising to thrilling effect and at other times falling chromatically into an almost depressive state. It never abandons its tonal ethos, but it sounds very difficult indeed to pitch and to sing. The booklet informs us that Milford prepared an organ accompaniment to reinforce the singers, but this is not used except in the Credo where it has an independent part. At other points - particularly in the Benedictus - which in this setting is shorn of its final Hosanna - one gets the uncomfortable feeling that the singers might have welcomed organ support to avoid the queasy impression that they sometimes give of an uncomfortably awareness that their pitch may be threatening to sag downwards. The choir of Somerville College is not like many other Oxbridge choirs, with boy sopranos and male altos; it consists of a body of students who strive valiantly with some very tricky writing. Milford is very much his own man in this music, not just a pale imitation of his teachers Vaughan Williams and Holst. It makes one very interested to hear some of his other large-scale choral works such as the oratorio A prophet in the land, from which Marion Milford recorded an excerpt for a Hyperion LP (A66048 never transferred to CD).
The matter of finding a coupling for Milford’s Mass must have constituted a problem, and the choir here opts for another liturgical piece written at the same time, Duruflé’s Requiem. This is given in the chamber edition for soloists, choir, organ and cello, which Duruflé himself regarded as a valid alternative to the full orchestral version. However it must be observed that although this has received a goodly number of recordings over the years, it lacks the full flavour of the work with orchestra. Duruflé himself when recording the Requiem opted for the fuller orchestration and this is currently available on a cheap Warner Apex CD. It must be admitted that the chamber version is very much ‘penny-plain’ when compared to the ‘twopenny-coloured’ orchestration. It is not helped here by a rather distant recording - in a very different acoustic to the Milford - where the organ is sometimes hard to distinguish clearly. Its sudden eruption at the beginning of the Libera me comes as rather a shock, as does the abrupt use of full voice by Christine Rice in the Pie Jesu.
Obviously this disc is most valuable for the Milford, which should be investigated by all lovers of English liturgical music - but by others too. The Duruflé is given a nicely recessed performance which brings out all its charm and devotion.
-- Paul Corfield Godfrey, MusicWeb International Read less
Works on This Recording
Requiem, Op. 9by Maurice Duruflé Performer:
Christine Rice (Soprano),
Mark Stone (Baritone),
Guy Johnston (Cello)
Somerville College Oxford Choir
Period: 20th Century Written: 1947; Paris, France
Mass for 5 Voices, Op. 84by Robin Milford Conductor:
Somerville College Oxford Choir
Period: 20th Century Written: by 1953