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William Henry HARRIS (1883-1973)
Choral Music
O Hearken Thou (1937) [2:32]
Strengthen ye the weak hands (1949) [7:47]
Faire is the heav’n (1925) [5:47]
Love of love (1935) [5:23]
King of Glory (1925) [5:24]
Praise the Lord (1938) [10:30]
The night is come (1961) [10:23]
The shepherd-men (1933) [2:50]
O joyful night (1939) [4:45]
From a heart made whole (1936) [3:23]
I said to the man (1969) [2:20]
Bring us, O Lord God (1955) [4:24]
The Choir of St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle/Timothy Byram-Wigfield
Roger Judd (organ)
rec. St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, 23-25 January 2006
NAXOS 8.570148 [65:45]

To Sir William Harris belongs the distinction of having written two of the very finest of all English church anthems, Faire is the heav’n and Bring us, O Lord God. Both are included in this anthology, which offers probably the most extensive survey of Harris’s vocal music yet committed to disc. There are no other pieces of quite the same stature in this anthology, but that’s not to say the rest of the programme is of inferior quality. The only other comparable collection of which I know is a 1997 ASV disc by Andrew Carwood and the Exon Singers (CD DCA 1015). I’m unsure if that’s still available but, if it is, the two discs complement rather than compete with each other because the Exon Singers are a mixed adult SATB choir, while the St. George’s Chapel choir uses boy trebles and male altos. Furthermore, there are only four pieces that are common to both discs.

Let’s first assess the performances of the two truly great anthems before considering other pieces. Faire is the heav’n is probably the finer piece – by a whisker – though personally I love Bring us, O Lord God even more. The former, a setting of Edmund Spencer (1552-1599), was memorably described by Herbert Howells, in a ninetieth birthday tribute to Harris, as “a supreme, flawless example of the ordered beauty of his Church works.” Ostensibly in the remote key of D flat, but ranging much wider, the work inhabits an otherworldly milieu and is characterised by sensual beauty at the start and finish though there is ardour in the central section. The St George’s choir sings it well though they’re not as full toned as the Exon Singers. Both choirs are bested, however, by John Rutter’s rich toned Cambridge Singers in their luminous recording (Collegium COLCD 107). Rutter’s choir also receives the best recording, the singers being set at just the right distance from the microphones to produce a magical distancing in the lovely acoustic of the Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral.

The St. George’s account of Bring us, O Lord God is also a success though once again I’d award the palm to Rutter’s choir, who unfold this wonderful anthem with an incomparable sense of spaciousness. (COLCD 113) In this piece I felt I detected one or two slight sounds of strain in the St George’s choir and I just wondered if  the choir of sixteen trebles and four each of altos, tenors and basses was quite strong enough fully to deliver Harris’s sumptuous double choir writing – incidentally, the Collegium engineers achieve the best spacing of the double choir. But in saying that I’m conscious of one important feature of this Naxos CD: its authenticity.

Part of the value of this disc lies in the fact that many of the pieces, including Bring us, O Lord God, were written precisely for this choir and the chapel in which the recording was made because Harris was organist of St. George’s Chapel from 1933 until 1961. Alastair Sampson, who contributes an outstanding booklet note, was himself a chorister under Harris between 1951 and 1955 - by which time he’d become Head Chorister – and, indeed, he relates in the note the occasion on which Harris rehearsed him and his fellow trebles for the very first time in his new piece, Bring us, O Lord God. So, even if I say that the choir sounds a little underpowered by comparison with some of their rivals it must be borne in mind that Harris conceived this piece for precisely this size of choir and this very acoustic.

If part of the value of the disc lies in that authenticity an equally high value comes from the choice of repertoire, which includes no less than three first recordings. One such is The night is come, which Alastair Sampson describes very aptly as “vintage Harris, but now with an added autumnal glow of old age.” It’s a splendid piece, setting words by Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) in which sleep is treated as a metaphor for death. Particularly striking is the gentle warmth of the closing pages (from about 8:30). Timothy Byram-Wigfield and his singers do the piece proud.

By contrast, the very next track, also a première recording, is a comparatively simple, strophic Christmas piece, The shepherd-men. This four-part setting is one of no little charm and the added exposure this recording should give it might see it become popular amongst choirs in general. The third piece recorded for the first time is I said to the man, a setting for men’s voices, which Harris made in retirement, of the text made famous by King George VI’s inclusion of it in his 1939 Christmas broadcast. There’s a touch of austerity to this piece, which has a restrained eloquence about it.

For the rest, some of the pieces are better known than others. I enjoyed very much the account of  Strengthen ye the weak hands, a finely-wrought composition which receives a committed performance, rising to a majestic climax at “They shall see the glory of the Lord”. The performance is one of several that are enriched by fine organ accompaniment in the expert hands of Roger Judd who, after more than twenty years at St George’s, clearly has an intimate knowledge of the organ there and how it works in the acoustic. The longest piece is Praise the Lord and I’m afraid I found this anthem was a bit too long for its material. From a heart made whole, on the other hand, is a nicely compressed creation, which features some surprising, intense harmonies. It’s a most interesting piece and it’s sung with great conviction.

Sir William Harris was a notable figure in twentieth-century English church music and, at its best, his music has genuine quality and the capacity to inspire and move performers and listeners alike. In the tribute from which I’ve already quoted, Herbert Howells summed up Harris’s art with typical felicity, averring that Harris can “demonstrate that eight-part vocal counterpoint and double-choir textures can – under Providence and a skilled hand – produce sounds appropriate to the beauty of the cathedrals and churches that are their natural home.”

As I said, there’s a very appropriate sense of authenticity about this recital, the contents of which have been shrewdly chosen, and it’s a fitting tribute by Harris’s choir under the expert leadership of his latest successor. The performances are very good, as is the recorded sound.  The booklet contains all the English texts and a superbly informative and well-written note, which is very extensive. My only criticism of the note is that it doesn’t discuss the music in the order in which it appears on the disc. That’s a small matter, however, since the essay flows so well. Naxos could have got round this problem by the simple expedient of using bold type for the title of each work as it appears in the note.

That very minor criticism apart, this is a first rate production which all devotees of Anglican church music will surely savour.

John Quinn

See also Reviews by Robert Hugill, William Kreindler and Em Marshall

 

 

 


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