Leo Sowerby was an important figure in twentieth-century
American music, especially in the field of liturgical music. He
trained as an organist and, after serving in the US Army in World
War I, won an American Prix de Rome for composition. After three
years in Rome he returned to the USA and in 1927 was appointed
organist and choirmaster of St. James Church, Chicago, where he
stayed until 1962. In that year he became founder-director of
the College of Church Musicians at the National Cathedral in Washington
D.C., a post which he held until his death. As a teacher his pupils
included Ned Rorem and also Gerald Near who contributes a foreword
to the booklet accompanying these CDs. Though Sowerby’s compositions
included concertos and at least four symphonies it is his important
contribution to church music which is celebrated here in a collection
originally issued to mark his centenary.
As someone with a keen interest both in liturgical
music and in American composers I approached this release with
some anticipation, the more so since I recently gave a warm welcome
to this choir’s fine CD of music by Edmund Rubbra. In the end,
however, my expectations were not wholly fulfilled.
This is not the fault of the choir, which sings
well throughout the collection. They are well balanced and blended.
They display a good dynamic range, which is well controlled and
they sing with commitment. Sowerby’s music is not so well represented
on CD as to enable many comparisons. However, in the case of the
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis I was able to compare them with another
recording, by the choir of St. Thomas’s Church, Fifth Avenue,
New York (in a mixed 1989 recital on Argo 425 800-2) The New York
choir is, I’m sure, smaller and is all male. Not surprisingly,
the smaller size and, especially, the use of boy trebles and male
altos means that their sound has a greater cutting edge than the
GDC choir possesses. That said, Gloriae Dei Cantores need not
fear the comparison. Theirs is just as good a performance and
it is fascinating to be able to compare this music in two very
different performing styles.
Unfortunately, though the choral singing is uniformly
good the same cannot be said of the soloists. I’ve listened to
several GDC discs in the past and this, for me, is a recurrent
problem. Invariably, the soloists are members of the choir and
their accomplishments vary quite widely. Too often their solo
singing is not of the standard one would expect on a full priced
CD. There are however some good soloists. Luke Norman sings the
lengthy Whoso Dwelleth rather well (CD 1, track 6). It
is a testing piece; the wide-ranging tessitura is often high-lying.
The style of the music is rhapsodic and, on occasion, dramatic.
However, Norman copes well. He has a good ring to his voice, his
diction is clear and he supports the notes better than any of
the other soloists. Another good soloist is Christine Helfrich
who projects strongly and sings with feeling though some may feel
she uses too much vibrato.
I’m afraid, however, that her fellow soprano,
Katherine Mary Hamilton tries too hard. In her efforts to sing
expressively she overdoes the vibrato and is less than wholly
firm in pitch. The same criticism applies to at least two of the
basses involved in the Three Psalms. I infer from the notes
that these were conceived as a set so I was a little surprised
to find three different singers involved but, in fact, this was
probably a correct decision for the different tessitura in each
setting means that one singer would have had to have a very large
compass to do justice to all three. Richard Pugsley makes a decent
shot at ‘Hear my cry, O God’ but in the following piece Paul Norman
is not entirely steady in pitch. I also felt he was taxed by the
lowest reaches of the tessitura. The same unsteadiness is noticeable
in Francis Hempel’s singing. To my ears all three fall into the
trap of trying too hard. Mind you, I’m not at all sure that they
are helped by the music they have been allocated. Heard as a set,
the overall impression I had of these psalm settings was that
the music is pretty lugubrious. In ‘How long wilt Thou forget
me’ Sowerby makes some attempt at drama but the two preceding
settings are, frankly, rather depressing. Surely, Psalm 23 should
convey confidence and comfort, even rapture? I looked in vain
for these qualities in Sowerby’s music. These settings are very
serious but I have to say that I really do think the authors of
the liner notes grossly overstate the case in claiming that they
"are not unworthy of mention with Brahms’s Vier Ernste
Gesänge." To my mind it’s no contest!
The music as a whole is conservative in tone
- nothing wrong with that! It is always technically accomplished
and one is never in any doubt as to Sowerby’s sincerity. That
said, I think he is too often inclined to over-indulge in chromatic
harmony and his textures can be rather thick. Several of the pieces,
especially the organ works, seem a bit too long for the strength
of their material. In fact, though Sowerby clearly had a strong
lyrical impulse I don’t believe he had a really memorable melodic
gift. Several of the pieces here are very pleasant to listen to
but, in all candour, I find that even after repeated listening
no melodies have really lodged in my memory. In part it may well
be that his melodic lines are too lengthy and complicated but
I don’t think that’s the sole explanation.
Let me give a specific illustration. The opening
track on CD 1, Great is the Lord is a setting of words
from Psalm 48. Elgar also set this text as an anthem. Both composers’
pieces open assertively but, and here’s the rub, Elgar sets out
his stall with a real tune. To be sure, I think Elgar loses
his way a bit in the middle of his composition, as does Sowerby,
but Elgar’s offering is underpinned by that fine, confident tune.
There’s nothing comparable in Sowerby’s setting, I’m afraid.
I must make it clear that there are some good
pieces in this collection. All they from Saba shall come
(CD 1, track 1) is an effective piece including some nice tenor
solos which are well sung here. However, perhaps it’s not without
significance that the pieces which I find work best are those
which are shorter and more reflective. An example is O God
the Protector of all (CD 2, track 13), the only a capella
piece included and Sowerby’s last published work. The harmonic
language is still quite rich but the piece seems to me to be written
in a more simple and direct style and it is the better for it.
I also much enjoyed the settings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis.
These are less chromatic and harmonically dense than some of the
other pieces and speak more directly to the listener. In this
setting of the canticles Sowerby is very responsive to the words.
I liked especially the strong, fervent setting of the ‘Glory Be’
with which the Magnificat concludes. The Nunc Dimittis is characterised
by quiet ecstasy and its ‘Glory Be’ is appropriately peaceful.
This is a fine set of canticles and, I’d venture to suggest, the
best music in the collection.
The inclusion of several organ pieces provides
contrast to the vocal works. All these instrumental offerings
are well played. David Chalmers, who has the lion’s share, plays
with sensitivity and skill and varies his registrations intelligently.
James E. Jordan is similarly effective in his contribution. However,
I am less than wholly convinced by the music itself. As with the
vocal pieces, the writing is technically assured but some of the
same problems that I noted above arise again. Carillon
(CD 1, track 7) was something of a surprise. I had expected an
extrovert piece. However, Sowerby’s piece is subdued and sounds
more like a pre-Evensong meditation. If, as I did on one occasion
that I was listening to the disc, you skip straight from this
item to Arioso (CD 1, track 9) you might well think you
are still listening to the same piece (for a moment I did, truly!).
Arioso is an atmospheric piece but, frankly, to me it just
seems to drift onwards. Canon, Chacony and Fugue (CD 2,
track 3) has more purpose and drive. It seems to me to be much
more tightly constructed and it’s a more varied piece which builds
to a rousing conclusion. The Prelude on "Were you there?"
(CD 2, track 6) is another piece which seems to meander quietly
and it would probably have been more effective at half the length.
The Festival Musick (CD 2, tracks 8-10) is a more outgoing
piece, scored for organ, brass and timpani. Here two extrovert
movements frame a chorale of subdued gravitas but, once again,
I’d argue that the chorale, and indeed the concluding Toccata,
are just too long by a fatal minute or two. I began by thinking
that the inclusion of several organ pieces was a good idea for
the sake of variety. After several hearings I now think that,
despite the skills of the players, I would have preferred to hear
more of the choir. That, I think, is largely because the organ
music is not sufficiently distinctive.
This is probably a collection to dip into rather
than listen to in long stretches. At his best Leo Sowerby was
a composer of conviction and integrity but, on the evidence of
what we have here, his technical abilities were not always matched
by inspiration. I should say that, on the basis of pieces by him
that appear on other CDs in my collection, this selection seems
pretty representative of his output, at least in the genres of
liturgical and organ music.
This is a worthy centenary tribute in which all
concerned give of their best in Sowerby’s cause. The recorded
sound is consistently good, full texts are provided and the notes
are useful if rather inclined to make too strong a case for Sowerby’s
music, I’d say. Regretfully, I’m unable to hide my reservations
about this music. However, since that is obviously a matter of
subjective taste, other listeners may well form a different view.
For those wishing to investigate the choral and organ output of
Leo Sowerby this generous compilation is likely to be their best
chance, I suspect. However, despite the generally good standard
of the performances I’m afraid I can only give a qualified recommendation.