Neither work is particularly well known, even among enthusiasts for Vaughan Williams music. Don't let that put you off. Both are original and gripping works and Sancta Civitas is an extraordinary piece unlike any other work I know. It is the work in which the composer found the unique colours and dissonance that would lead to works like Job and the Fourth Symphony and is, perhaps, even finer than those great works. It is certainly original. The only previous recording that came anywhere near to doing the work justice was that conducted by Sir David Willcocks. This new account is in the same class and has the benefit of a superb modern recording that the earlier record cannot match. I genuinely believe that Sancta Civitas is one of Vaughan Williams' most under-rated works. Dona Nobis Pacem is also given a great performance here. This marvellous work was very popular before the Second World War and the tone of anguish and resolve is very special. The soloists are superb, the choir and orchestra unusually well balanced and Hickox paces both works to perfection.
Whether 'Sancta civitas' or 'Dona nobis pacem' is the greater work is subject to debate. But both receive first-rate recordings on this disc. Hickox's recording of "Dona nobis pacem" is excellent (I rate it second, just a shade behind the late Robert Shaw's on Telarc); the singing is first-rate throughout, and the finale is a roller coaster of emotions, from fear to joy to quiet dignity. Yvonne Kenny in particular handles her solos effortlessly. Hickox's 'Sancta' will be, almost without question, the standard for any future recordings of the work. Using all the forces RVW recommended--especially the organ--the net result is incredible: the finale, "Heaven and earth are full of thy glory," is simply overwhelming, an incredible onslaught of sound, followed by one of the great surprises in all of 20th century music. And there are moments of great beauty as well: "Babylon the great is fallen" is a hushed lament (handled with even more skill than Walton's setting of the same text in "Belshazzar's Feast"), while "And I saw a new Heaven" is simply ravishing. I recommend this CD highly and without reservation.
These works were composed (Sancta Civitas in the mid 1920s, Dona Nobis Pacem in 1936 to mark the 100th anniversary of the Huddersfield Choral Society) at the time when Vaughan Williams was leaving behind the pre-1914 certainties of the pastoral idyll, reflecting both his experience of the conflict and the uncertainties of the inter-war period and the continuing threat of war. I feel they're very much a pair that can be set alongside his 4th symphony, the cross rhythms and clashing harmonies pointing up the mood of unsettlement.
Personally, I prefer the choral swoops and flows of the later piece, rather than VWs own favourite Sancta, but there's a lot to enjoy in both. The recording (from 1992) is absolutely top notch, the depth to the choral sections, the separation of the excellent soloists Yvonne Kenny, Bryn Terfel and Philip Langridges all excellent. Must have recording, now at a bargain price.
This recording of VW’s cantata ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’ and oratorio ‘Sancta Civitas’ by Richard Hickox and the LSO was made in 1992. The sleevenotes include the libretti.
The first, mixing Christian texts with the words of the profound American poet Walt Whitman, was completed in 1936. It is a good performance, the ‘Reconciliation’ movement being especially good, living up to Whitman’s words “beautiful as the sky”.
The second, of 1926, is again a good rendition, warm even in its supposed desolation. Here, though, despite the splendid interpretation, despite the vigour, the great beauty, and the commitment of the performers, the sound is somewhat flat with the subtleties in the orchestra not exploited to the full.