> Passiontide 8557025 [WH]: Classical CD Reviews- June2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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PASSIONTIDE – Music for Solace and Reflection
MENDELSSOHN: Hear my Prayer
Peter HURFORD: Litany to the Holy Spirit
S S WESLEY: Wash me thoroughly
PERGOLESI: Stabat Mater (4 extracts)
BYRD: Civitas sancti tui
BACH: O sacred head sore wounded
BACH: Bist di bei mir
CASALS: O vos omnes
LOTTI: Crucifixus
Richard DERING: O bone Jesu
GIBBONS: Drop, drop, slow tears
IRELAND: Ex ore innocentium
Maurice GREENE: Lord, let me know mine end
MILLER: When I survey the wondrous cross
Emily Gray, Claire Buckley, sopranos; Jeffrey Makinson, organ,
Manchester Cathedral Choir/Christopher Stokes.
Recorded January/February 2002, Manchester Cathedral.
NAXOS 8.557025 [62.16]


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As the title makes clear, this is a collection of music for Easter, and as such suffers almost inevitably from lack of variety in a way a collection of Christmas music rarely does. The Manchester Cathedral Choir puts up a very good showing, but compared to the best choirs, even those with a strong youth element, certain weaknesses are apparent. Intonation is excellent, ensemble too, with a commendable unanimity of attack. But the overall sound is rather pale, individual voices sometimes stand out, and the trebles are not always as refined as one might wish, especially in the higher reaches. The group’s strengths and weaknesses can readily be heard in their reading of Lotti’s famous piece, which is given with organ accompaniment. The singing is very well in place, but the whole lacks character and there is relatively little of the work’s passion.

This is an important issue, however, because it makes available to a wider public the name – and the voice – of Emily Gray who, as a sticker on the box proclaims, won the BBC Radio 2 Choirgirl of the Year competition in 2000.[photo credit BBC2] On her showing here the award was thoroughly deserved: hers is a voice of great beauty, very pure with impeccable intonation and excellent diction. She sings with intelligence and communicates well. Who could ask for more? Well, there is a certain sameness about her delivery, but that would be difficult to avoid in this repertoire. It would be very interesting to hear her in a more varied programme.

The first item gives a good idea of what is to come, with Mendelssohn’s motet Hear my Prayer, including the famous solo O for the wings of a dove, well sung, in English, but rather detached in feeling. Vaughan Williams’ exquisite short anthem O Taste and See follows. Unusually the tiny organ introduction is used for this otherwise unaccompanied piece, very much a point in favour of this performance, though the trebles struggle to match their soloist’s purity when they take over from her after her initial solo. A simple piece by Peter Hurford features some most beautifully sensitive singing which makes one impatient to hear the piece again in spite of the slightness of its musical content.

Other highlights include one of the celebrated cellist Pablo Casals’ excursions into composition, an anthem for children’s voices by John Ireland and some extracts from Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. Emily Gray is joined here by another young soprano, Claire Buckley, and though she sings alongside Miss Gray in two other pieces she is an accomplished singer in her own right and it would have been good to hear more of her. They sing the Pergolesi most beautifully, but again I found myself wishing they would shake off some of their restraint, let themselves go a bit. And the organ sits uncomfortably in place of the string accompaniment.

The disc ends with a rendition of When I survey the wondrous cross in true congregational style and which refreshingly avoids the preciousness of many other attempts to record traditional hymns.

There are several preferable versions of the better known pieces on this recording, but anyone buying it for what it is, a representative example of the work of a particular choir and two most promising young singers, will not be disappointed. Listening to it straight through, however, one is certainly struck by the lack of variety and contrast, and the very particular atmosphere created brings to mind Philip Larkin’s words describing religion and the church: "That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade/Created to pretend we never die."

William Hedley


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