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Malcolm ARCHER: Cathedral Music
The Desert shall Rejoice [5’39"]
The Wells Service: Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis [10’37"]
Blest are the pure in heart [2’53"]
The Clifton Service: Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis [8’56"]
Missa Brevis [15’03"]
The Son of the most high [6’39"]
O where can I go from your Spirit [2’38"]
A Hymn to Wisdom [6’52"]
O magnum mysterium [4’53"]
Wells Cathedral Choir directed by Malcolm Archer
Rupert Gough (organ)
Recording: Wells Cathedral, 1, 7, 8 July 2003


I think I am right in saying that the city of Wells in Somerset is the smallest city in England. It is dominated (in a very pleasant way) by its magnificent medieval cathedral. Malcolm Archer has been Organist and Master of the Choristers at this cathedral since 1996. It is evident from this CD that he is a first class composer and choral trainer.

All the pieces that are included here were composed between 1998 and 2003. Without exception they demonstrate that Archer has a fine ear for choral sonority, an admirable sensitivity to words, and a genuine and distinctive melodic voice. His harmonic language is accessible and traditional (in the best sense of the word) but it is never bland. Above all, I think, his music conveys a genuine atmosphere and uplifts the listener. If I have a complaint about the chosen programme it is that most of the music is in moderate or slow tempo. I should have been interested to hear Archer in a more rhythmically buoyant mood. However, that is a minor quibble for what is on offer here is very satisfying.

There are two sets of canticles, one written for his own choir and one written for the choir of Clifton Lodge School, Ealing where one of Archer’s friends is in charge of the choir. All I can say is that this school must possess a very good choir for their ‘Mag’ and ‘Nunc’ sound far from easy to sing well. The Wells choir sings both sets of canticles and indeed everything else on the disc, extremely well. The Wells Magnificat is a beautiful setting, distinguished by flowing, expansive lines. The music fits the words exceptionally well and the setting culminates in a wonderful, majestic and arcing ‘Gloria’ that put me in mind of Herbert Howells, the supreme craftsman of ‘Mags’ and ‘Nuncs’. Happily, we get a second chance to hear the Gloria when it is reprised at the end of the fine Nunc Dimittis. In the Clifton canticles Archer does not set the Gloria to the same music each time. The conclusion of the Magnificat (a fine setting that brings out, I think, that this is a feminine canticle) is strongly affirmative ‘Gloria’ that tellingly dies away into mystery. The Nunc Dimittis glows quietly but fervently and the ‘Gloria’ with which it concludes fits the music that has preceded it like a glove.

The disc also contains a succinct Missa Brevis, commissioned by a church choir in Dallas. This a cappella setting exploits the sonorities of the choir very well. Of particular note is the slightly more astringent harmonic palette employed in the plangent Kyrie and the lovely Agnus Dei in which rising and falling vocal lines intertwine most effectively.

Among the anthems I was very struck by The Son of the Most High. This was written in 2000 to be sung at the annual week-long liturgical festival, Musica Deo Sacra, held at Tewkesbury Abbey each summer, when an expert visiting choir sings services. This anthem is a marvellous, eloquent piece that features glowing and radiant choral textures. The Wells singers do it proud. Another striking anthem is A Hymn to Wisdom, which was written to mark the retirement of the Dean of Wells in 2003. It was unveiled during his final weekend at the cathedral and must have been a delightful surprise for him (the composition had been kept a secret from him.) This piece contains probably the most wide-ranging music on the disc and it is performed with great assurance and commitment.

My favourite piece, though, is the one with which the recital closes, a setting of the Christmas text, O magnum mysterium. In his excellent liner notes Malcolm Archer evokes the great settings by Victoria and Poulenc. I would say that he achieves the same sense of rarified, peaceful awe and wonder that we find in the aforementioned masterly settings of the text and I’d add another comparison, the setting by Morten Lauridsen. Archer’s version is just as atmospheric as any of these and deeply satisfying.

So, this is a very enjoyable and rewarding disc. As I’ve said, the notes are very good and full English texts are supplied. The sound is very good indeed; both the engineers and Archer himself have used the spacious acoustic of Wells Cathedral effectively and successfully. There is excellent ambience round the choir but the singing is always clearly reported. Of course, the fine diction and excellent choral projection help enormously. The Wells choir is on excellent form. They blend splendidly and produce a consistently beautiful sound. Rupert Gough, who is Malcolm Archer’s assistant, accompanies several pieces very sensitively, and the organ sound has been integrated into the overall balance very well.

The music on this disc is of very high quality and the performances are equally fine. Wells Cathedral is very lucky to have such an accomplished musician in residence and I hope that this disc will bring his excellent music to a wider audience. I strongly recommend this CD to all lovers of good choral music and that of the English church in particular.

John Quinn

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