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Gabriel JACKSON (b. 1962)
Sacred Choral Works
Edinburgh Mass (2001) [13:35]
O Sacrum Convivium (1990)* [6:35]
Creator of the Stars of Night (2000) [4:16]
Ane Sang of the Birth of Christ (2002) [4:13]
A Prayer of King Henry VI (2002) [2:54]
Preces (2003) [1:11]
Psalm 112: Laudate Pueri (2004) [9:49]
Magnificat (Truro Service) (2001) [4:16]
Nunc Dimittis (Truro Service) (2001) [2:16]
Responses (2003) [5:32]
Salve Regina (2000) [5:41]
Dismissal (2003) [0:28]
St Asaph Toccata (2003) [8:34]
Michael Bonaventure (organ, Psalm 112, Toccata)
Susan Hamilton (soprano, Psalm 112)
Simon Nieminski (organ, Creator, Ane Sang)
The Choir of St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Edinburgh/Matthew Owens
rec. St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Edinburgh, 23-24 February, 21 December 2004, 4 January 2005. DDD
Texts and English translations included
All first recordings except item marked *
DELPHIAN DCD34027 [70:22]

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Gabriel JACKSON (b. 1962)
Not no faceless Angel
To Morning (2007) [2:26]
Song (I gaze upon you) (1996) [5:46]
Cecilia Virgo (2000) [[7:50]
Orbis patrator optime (2006) [6:52]
Ave Maria (2004) [7:19}
Hymn to the Trinity (Honor, virtus et potestas) (2000) [5:38]
Not no faceless Angel (2005)** [10:07]
O sacrum convivium (1990)* [6:24]
Lux Mortuorum (1995)* [7:36]
Salve regina (2000)* [5:15]
Salve regina 2 (2004) [12:18]
Polyphony/Stephen Layton (all)
Clare O’Connell (cello) Katherine Bicknell (flute) (Angel)
rec. All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London, 3-5 January 2008 DDD
Texts and English translations included
All first recordings except items marked *
HYPERION CDA67708 [75:58]
Experience Classicsonline

I’ve previously heard several pieces by Gabriel Jackson, all of them choral, and have been impressed by them. They have included the canticles from his Tewkesbury Service (see review) and, more recently, the remarkable Sanctum est verum lumen (see review). However, so far as I know, these are the first discs devoted exclusively to his music.

The Delphian disc is not a new release. It first appeared about three years ago, when it was reviewed by my colleague, Dominy Clements. The re-release of the CD coincides with the announcement of Gabriel Jackson’s appointment as the next Associate Composer to the BBC Singers in succession to Judith Bingham, starting in 2010. Since this recording was issued Matthew Owens has moved on to Wells Cathedral, where he is now organist and doing some fine work to judge by CDs of music by Geoffrey Burgon (see review) and Kenneth Leighton (see review). As for Polyphony and Stephen Layton, this is the latest in their splendid series of Hyperion releases that focus on twentieth century composers such as Morten Lauridsen (see review and review), Pavel Lukaszewski (see review) and James MacMillan (see review).

It might be thought unfortunate that the Delphian re-release coincides with the arrival of the new Hyperion disc. However, as a glance at the track-listings will show, there’s virtually no overlap between the two programmes, with only two items, O Sacrum Convivium and the first setting of Salve regina being common to both discs. In fact, almost all the pieces on the both CDs are receiving their first recordings. In several ways the discs complement each other very nicely.

The Delphian collection has more structure to it because the programme has been constructed around Anglican services. Thus we hear the Edinburgh Mass, a four movement Missa Brevis, with O Sacrum Convivium very appropriately tacked on as a Communion motet. Two carol settings follow and then the remainder of the programme is designed as a Jackson Evensong, even to the extent of including Preces and Responses, written by Jackson to a commission from St Mary’s Cathedral. All this seems to me to be a very sensible and interesting piece of programme planning, designed to celebrate the close association that Jackson enjoyed with the cathedral for four years at the beginning of the present decade.

The Edinburgh choir as recorded here comprises four each of tenors and male altos, six basses, and seventeen choristers, who are a mix of boys and girls. In the booklet Jackson describes the personality of the choir in these words: “exuberant, fiercely intelligent, yet also possessed of a rare numinousness and intimacy.” 

Matthew Greenall, in his very useful booklet notes, writes of the “pared down, almost terse nature” of the Edinburgh Mass. I think he’s right to draw parallels with settings by Poulenc, Stravinsky and Pärt. Apparently, in commissioning it, the Provost of Edinburgh Cathedral asked Jackson for “a sensible Mass”. I think Jackson fulfilled that stipulation for his Mass is practical and seems ideally suited for liturgical use - this is not a concert work. But I’d go further and say that he’s also written a sensitive Mass, one which I judge to be a most welcome addition to the repertoire. I particularly like the Sanctus, where Jackson builds up the choral texture from four voices to ten and then to full choir. The Benedictus features a haunting alto solo and the Agnus Dei is a piercing plea for mercy that eventually resolves into a warm, pacific Dona Nobis Pacem. The setting of O Sacrum Convivium makes a fine appendix to the Mass. Much of the music is hushed and devotional in tone and Jackson establishes a timeless, meditative mood. The Edinburgh choir produces some fine sustained singing. Polyphony is, of course, comprised of adult professional singers and on their CD their impeccable blending results in an even smoother performance, though the edge of the Edinburgh trebles is very persuasive. It’s also noticeable that Polyphony, with a slightly larger bass section of eight singers, endow the music with a more sonorous bass line.

The Edinburgh Evensong opens with the Latin setting of the famous Prayer of King Henry VI, which makes an effective introit. The psalm setting is by no means the conventional Anglican chant. Jackson’s setting of Psalm 112 is an exuberant, virtuoso piece for solo soprano and organ. The guest soloist is Susan Hamilton, the co-founder of the Dunedin Consort. She appears as the soprano soloist on the Consort’s acclaimed recording of Messiah. I must confess that on that admirable recording I found the tone of her voice a trifle plain but perhaps that was by design. Here the tone is rounder yet none of the agility that must be an essential to success in this piece is sacrificed. The work sounds to be hugely demanding to sing - though Miss Hamilton makes light of the difficulties - but also very rewarding. For the listener it’s exciting and enjoyable. The organ part, splendidly played here, is likewise a tour de force and the inventive organ part complements and enhances the vocal line. Though the prevailing mood is joyful and extrovert there are a couple of very effective slower sections, which provide welcome contrast.

In contrast to the florid psalm, the ‘Mag and Nunc’ settings are simple and unaccompanied. Here Jackson gives a twenty-first century slant on alternatim. There’s a surprising - and effective - key change for the doxology in both canticles. Towards the end of this Evensong Salve regina is sung as the anthem, the choice emphasising a Marian sub-theme in this Edinburgh programme. It’s a beautiful setting, which is included on both CDs and my comparative comments about O Sacrum Convivium apply here also.

As the concluding voluntary we hear St Asaph Toccata, which despite its title was written for Symphony Hall, Birmingham. This is a tremendous piece, played with real panache by Michael Bonaventure. At the start one is kept waiting - and waiting - for the entry of the pedals under the manual figurations. You know it’s coming but Jackson cunningly delays the moment until 1:10 and when the pedals finally thunder it’s worth the wait. The piece has many exciting passages but actually what impresses me just as much is the range of sonorities that composer and organist conjure up in quieter passages. Overall the piece has a strong rhythmic impulse and is very exciting. I was a little disappointed by the ending, which was not what I expected - but at least Jackson is original. I won’t spoil the surprise for anyone new to the piece. The toccata crowns a very enjoyable and satisfying disc.

The Hyperion programme doesn’t have the structure of its Delphian rival. It’s a more conventional anthology disc but none the worse for that. Anyone who has heard recordings by Stephen Layton’s excellent choir will know what to expect in terms of identification with the music, splendid professionalism and faultless technique - and they won’t be disappointed. The singing throughout this recital is of the very highest order. Furthermore, Stephen Layton has chosen some very interesting and expertly crafted pieces, all but one of them unaccompanied.

Among items that caught my ear particularly, Song (I gaze upon you) is a setting of verses by the French poet, Paul Élouard, in an English translation. This is a wedding anthem and the music is harmonised with an appropriate sensuousness. I found that the setting adds a new dimension to the words, which is just as it should be. Cecilia Virgo is a hymn to St. Cecilia. Appropriately, this celebration of the patron saint of music becomes a celebration of vocal textures. The music is elaborate in the way that Tudor polyphony - a frequent source of inspiration for Gabriel Jackson - is elaborate. I found it to be a most effective piece.

Ave Maria is a prayerful offering, featuring long, flowing vocal lines although there’s strong supplication at the words “Sancta Maria, mater Dei”. The ending is very beautiful as a pair of solo sopranos soar gently above slow, quiet block chords.

The piece, which gives the CD its title - dare I say a rather clumsy, ungrammatical title? - is a setting of lines by a teenage poet on the subject of bereavement. There are important parts for a solo cello and a solo flute. The choral writing includes some very interesting harmonies and the use of the two instruments, as well as passages featuring vocal soloists or small consorts set against the main choir, provides consistently interesting textures. The plaintive cello holds sway for the first three stanzas of text. It’s only when we reach the fourth stanza, which is more consolatory in tone, that Jackson introduces the flute and at this point the music becomes more warm and optimistic to match the words.  

Jackson wrote a setting of Salve Regina in 2000. Four years later he returned to the text and set it again. However, this time the piece was on a much more expansive scale, not least because he interpolated three extracts from medieval English poems. The result is a much more complex piece, both rhythmically and harmonically. While the earlier work is by no means put in the shade its successor is even richer. Polyphony perform both pieces marvellously.

Time to sum up. Both these discs are extremely well presented. The recorded sound for both choirs is very good indeed and both discs come with well laid out booklets including informative and interesting notes. Polyphony offer the more refined singing, as you’d expect from a choir of adult professional singers. The Edinburgh choir can’t quite match that sustained level of excellence but they still do very well indeed and they offer the genuine cathedral sound that Gabriel Jackson must have had in mind when he wrote most, if not all the music offered by Delphian. Both CDs give us a rewarding and revealing portrait of Gabriel Jackson as choral composer. 

To be honest it would be perverse to recommend one of these excellent discs in preference to the other, not least because each is a very different proposition to the other. Probably your choice will be determined by the repertoire and by the type of choir you wish to hear. However, if on the flip of a coin you opt for one of these discs I suspect it won’t be long before you’ll be adding the other to your collection.

Clearly Gabriel Jackson is a significant voice in modern British choral writing. I love his very evident respect and affection for the tradition in which he writes and I admire greatly the way in which, on the evidence of these CDs, he builds on that tradition and renews it. I hope now that it won’t be long before we can have a recording of the a cappella Requiem, written for and premièred just last year by the Vasari Singers. To judge by the extract I’ve been able to hear that’s another fine work by a composer who writes exceptionally sympathetically for voices.

John Quinn

see also review by Dominy Clements (Delphian)

 


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