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A New Heaven
Sir Hubert PARRY (1848-1918)
I was glad (1902, rev. 1911) [5:41]
Charles WOOD (1866-1926)
Oh Thou, the central orb (c. 1915) [4:09]
Sir William HARRIS (1883-1973)
Faire is the heaven (1925) [5:21]
Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Beati quorum via, from Three Latin Motets, Op. 38/3 (1892) [3:34]
Sir Edward BAIRSTOW (1874-1946)
Blessed city, heavenly Salem (c.1913) [9:05]
Sir Hubert PARRY
Jerusalem (1916) [2:53]
Henry BALFOUR GARDINER (1877-1950)
Evening Hymn (1908) [6:44]
Howard GOODALL (b. 1958)
The Lord is my shepherd [3:18]
Edgar BAINTON (1880-1956)
And I saw a new heaven (1928) [5:14]
Sir Hubert PARRY
My soul, there is a country (1915/16), from the Songs of Farewell [4:00]
Sir John STAINER (1840-1901)
I saw the Lord (c.1876) [7:13]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks (1941) [6:33]
Charles WOOD
Hail, gladdening light (c.1919) [3:19]
John RUTTER (b. 1945)
The Lord is my shepherd [4:53]
The Sixteen/Harry Christophers
Robert Quinney (organ)
rec. 10-13 October 2008, St Peter’s Italian Church, Clerkenwell, London, England
UNIVERSAL CLASSICS & JAZZ 1795732 [72:04] 
Experience Classicsonline

Titled A New Heaven this is an outstanding collection of English sacred choral music for the Anglican church. The choice of repertoire is not one I generally associate with The Sixteen who have built their reputation mainly around performances of early English polyphony and music of the Renaissance. The last occasion that I had the pleasure of hearing them was in 2007 at Kendal Parish Church, as part of the Lake District Summer Music Festival. Then they were directed by assistant conductor Eamonn Dougan and singing their more familiar Music from the Sistine Chapel. Here The Sixteen, accompanied in some of the scores by an organ, are directed by their founder and regular conductor Harry Christophers. 

With collections of English sacred choral music it is hard to ignore the strong associations with Stanford and his pupils and colleagues at the Royal College of Music (RCM) in London and also Cambridge University. Stanford is represented by a single score Beati quorum via and there are three works by the distinguished choral composer Sir Hubert Parry; a fellow RCM teacher from 1884 who became college director in 1894-1918. Of the nine other composers: Charles Wood, Edgar Bainton and Herbert Howells were all Stanford pupils at the RCM. Although I’m unsure if William Harris, another Royal College student, had formal lessons with Stanford he would certainly have come under his sphere of influence.

Parry was a pillar of the British musical establishment and the first of his three scores is the famous anthem I was Glad. Written in 1902 for the coronation of King Edward VII it has been performed at each subsequent coronation. A setting of words from Psalm 122, Parry’s anthem for double choir was revised in 1911 with the addition of an introduction. I note that another Stanford pupil at the RCM, Gordon Jacob made an orchestration of the score for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The heavy and rich organ texture is a feature of this uplifting Parry anthem. Somehow the 26 or so strong chamber choir sound like a massed chorus. The section O Pray for the peace of Jerusalem provides a calming contrast to the overtly stirring character of the music. The anthem concludes with majestic organ writing of a quality certainly fit for a king.  

The hymn Jerusalem along with Blest pair of Sirens and I was Glad are Parry’s most famous works. In 1916 during the terrors of the Great War, Parry was requested by poet laureate Robert Bridges to set verses from William Blake’s famous epic poem Milton. The intention was for Parry’s music to be used at a meeting of the Fight for Right campaign at the Queen’s Hall in London. Jerusalem is commonly heard today in the 1922 orchestral version by Sir Edward Elgar and is used as an anthem at sporting occasions by some English national teams. Moving, memorable and imposing seem to be the most appropriate words to describe this towering music. In this outstanding performance I was left with a sense of security and comfort by the strong and resilient quality of the setting.

Parry's motet My soul, there is a country is a setting of words by Henry Vaughan. The score from around 1915/16 is the first and best known of the set of six motets entitled Songs of Farewell. Throughout the Sixteen are able to educe a serious and introspective character to Parry’s rather tragic setting.

Irish-born Charles Wood became one of the inaugural class of fifty students at the newly instituted RCM. There he studied with Stanford and Parry. A teacher of some note himself, Wood included both Vaughan Williams and Howells amongst his pupils. Certainly one of the most underrated of Stanford’s pupil’s, Wood is represented on this disc by two works O Thou, the central orb and Hail gladdening light.

Wood’s anthem O Thou, the central orb, published in 1915 is a setting of text by Henry Ramsden Bramley. This is a reassuringly reverential setting with a weighty conclusion of real splendour. Published in 1919, Wood’s anthem Hail gladdening light sets a Greek hymn text translated by John Keble. Wood’s magnificent setting has an underlying sombre quality in spite of much of the music inhabiting high registers. 

Sir William Harris studied under Charles Wood at the RCM. Harris is principally remembered today for his tenure as organist at St. Georges Chapel at Windsor Castle serving British royalty between 1933 and 1961. Completed in 1925, Faire is the heaven uses words by Edmund Spenser and is one of Harris’s best known scores. The anthem bears a dedication to Sir Hugh Allen whom Harris had succeeded in 1919 as organist at New College, Oxford. In Faire is the heaven the two groups of voices are clearly distinguishable and one can easily picture the decani and cantori sections in their respective choir stalls. This is vocal ensemble singing of diamond cut quality with the silkiest of timbres distinguishing The Sixteen from other groups.  

Stanford the pedagogue presided over two generations of composition students as professor at both Cambridge and the RCM. His remarkable success as a composition teacher was unprecedented; metaphorically speaking he was ‘sprinkling stardust’ on two generations of young composers, who numbered some of the most successful and individual British composers of the twentieth century. Today probably the best known of his former students are Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, Herbert Howells, John Ireland, Samuel Coleridge Taylor, Ernest John Moeran, Sir Arthur Bliss, Sir George Dyson, Haydn Wood, Ivor Gurney and Leopold Stokowski.

Stanford is often known as the father of English choral music for his influential redesigning and enriching of the genre. His sacred music is still regularly heard today in churches and cathedrals up and down the UK. He was most prolific in the genre of sacred music and there are numerous scores to choose from. Here Stanford is represented by his Beati quorum via from 1892, the third of his Three Latin Motets, Op. 38, a setting of words from Psalm 119. The stylish counterpoint and subtle textures provide a graciously soothing character to Stanford’s exquisite setting that demonstrates his mastery of the church choir.

Sir Edward Bairstow, the renowned Yorkshire-born organist, teacher and composer is best remembered as organist at York Minster serving from 1913 to 1946. The majority of Bairstow’s oeuvre is liturgical music such as services, anthems and numerous works for organ. Bairstow is represented on this disc by the substantial anthem Blessed city, heavenly Salem based on music and texts from the anonymous 6th or 7th century plainsong hymn Urbs beata Hierusalem, dicta pacis. Bairstow’s setting has a distinct contemporary feel. A mainly grey and languid score of an introspective character steeped in seriousness contrasted with several episodes of increased dramatic weight. I love the way the organ weaves its thread through the choral textures.

Henry Balfour Gardiner was one of the group of students, known as the Frankfurt Gang, who studied at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, Germany in the late 1890s. The Evening Hymn from 1908 is a setting of the Ambrosian hymn Te lucis ante terminum (To thee, before the close of day). A classic work of the English sacred choral repertoire, the anthem is probably Balfour Gardiner’s most celebrated score, often sung at evensong service. Remarkable is the writing for unaccompanied organ that opens the anthem to a spine-chilling effect. The attractive setting has a generally tender hue bordering on the meditative with long flowing melodic lines.

Popular composer and broadcaster Howard Goodall is today certainly the best known composer on this disc. Goodall has made a considerable reputation for himself as a light music practitioner of popular choral music, musicals, films and television scores such as Blackadder, QI, Red Dwarf, Mr Bean, The Catherine Tate Show and The Vicar of Dibley. At the time of writing three memorable extracts from his new release Enchanted Voices - a contemporary take on ancient chants - are being regularly played on the Classic FM radio station where he is currently composer-in-residence. There cannot be many readers that have not heard a section from Goodall’s setting of Psalm 23 The Lord is my shepherd, universally known as the theme music to The Vicar of Dibley, the BBC Television sitcom staring Dawn French. Heard out of its usual context and in its entirety The Lord is my shepherd is magnificently appealing - so melodic and extremely accessible. Soprano soloist Elin Manahan Thomas demonstrates outstanding control and a most glorious timbre.

Edgar Bainton studied with Stanford at the RCM before embarking on a fascinating and eventful music career. After several years as a teacher Bainton in 1912 became the Principal of the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Music Conservatory. Whilst visiting Germany, Bainton was one of a large group of British nationals that were arrested and interned at the Rühleben camp near Berlin where he spent four years. At Rühleben there was a strong musical group including a madrigal society known as ‘Bainton’s Magpies’. In 1933 he was appointed director of the New South Wales Conservatorium of Music, serving until his retirement aged 65. Published in 1928 Bainton’s most celebrated composition is his anthem And I saw a new heaven from his small body of sacred music. His text for And I saw a new heaven is taken from the book of Revelations and the anthem remains a standard in the Anglican service. The setting makes a considerable emotional impact with the gentle conclusion a welcome release from the underlying tension and foreboding.

Sir John Stainer became one of the leading organists of his time, serving at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and becoming Professor of Music at Oxford. Stainer wrote a large amount of sacred music but today he is known primarily for The Crucifixion - one of the most popular and enduring choral works in the history of Anglican choral music (see review). Designed to be within the capabilities of a typical provincial amateur choir The Crucifixion at its peak of popularity became as admired as Handel’s Messiah and Mendelssohn’s St. Paul and Elijah. The anthem I saw the Lord was published in 1876 with Stainer using a text from Isaiah and an anonymous Latin hymn translated by John David Chambers. Stainer’s counterpoint has a rousing almost raucous energy. At 3:27 the gentle soprano solo of Elin Manahan Thomas provides an appealing contrast to commence the admirable section for the quartet of SATB soloists. Highly impressive is the hymn-like conclusion to the setting ending with a splendid Amen.

Yet another Stanford pupil at the RCM, Herbert Howells is recognised as a master composer of sacred music. Following the tragic death of Howells’ son Michael in 1935 the composer tended to concentrate more on sacred music that has gained a prominent place in the Anglican service. One such score is the anthem Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks a setting of words from Psalm 42 that Howells wrote in 1941 - it seems in a just a single day. In Like as the hart The Sixteen convey a meditative, almost haunting quality to the music that is surely redolent of the composer’s personal loss.  

Certainly John Rutter is the most notable British composer of sacred music writing today and I read that he is now the most-performed choral composer in the world (Michael Church, The Independent, 13 December 2005). Spending his formative years as a chorister at London’s Highgate School, from 1975 to 1979 Rutter went up to study music at Clare College, Cambridge, later becoming director of music. His setting of Psalm 23 The Lord is my shepherd clearly demonstrates the emphasis he places on accessibility and wonderful melody. Rutter’s expertly performed The Lord Is My Shepherd is a rather uneventful setting containing distinct elements of anxiety and tension. 

A sensible piece of marketing on this release from UCJ Music would have been to fill up the remaining space on the disc with a sacred work by Vaughan Williams. I would have preferred the inclusion of any of the following motets: Prayer to the father of heaven, O clap your hands, O vos omnes or the anthem O, how amiable. Maybe even a short work from Elgar, who did not write exclusively for the Catholic liturgy - possibly his O harken Thou composed for the Coronation of King George V at Westminster Abbey. 

Superbly presented this release is quite outstanding with flawless performances. The Sixteen moves effortlessly from singing of a tender, meditative beauty to an impressive intensity that is both robust and dramatic. That said, the devotional nature of the sacred texts is always the paramount concern. The smooth velvety timbre of The Sixteen may take some getting used to as opposed to the harder-edged choral sound more usually heard in say the Parry scores. It seems unfair to single out individual singers for special praise from this wonderful group achievement however soprano Elin Manahan Thomas is in especially glorious voice. From St. Peter’s Italian Church, Clerkenwell the sound quality is excellent being especially warm and well balanced. There are interesting and informative booklet notes but unfortunately no texts are provided.

This is more than just a mere compilation of English sacred choral music. The Sixteen make this indispensable listening. Certainly a contender as one of my 2009 Records of the Year.

Michael Cookson 


 


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