Aureole etc.

Golden Age singers

Nimbus on-line

Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Leo SOWERBY (1895-1968)
American Master of Sacred Song

Great is the Lord (1933) [8’30"]
Three Psalms for Bass (1928): Hear My Cry, O God a [5’53"]; The Lord is My Shepherd b [4’33"]; How Long Wilt Thou Forget Me c [5’05"]
Turn Thou to Thy God (1957) [6’40"]
Whoso Dwelleth (1935?) d [7’24"]
Carillon* (1917) [7’35"]
An Angel Stood by the Altar of the Temple (1955) [5’19"]
Arioso* (1942) [9’08"]
Lovely Infant (1963) [2’23"]
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in E minor (1957) [9’11"]
All They from Saba Shall Come g (1934) [5’0-1"]
Jesu, Bright and Morning Star (1958) [3’08]
Canon, Chacony and Fugue* (1948) [11’53"]
Songs of Faith and Penitence (1933): O God of Light e[3’48"]; Thou Art My Strength f [4’26"]
Prelude on "Were You There?"* (1953-4) [9’16"]
Christians to the Paschal Victim (1965) [4’51"]
Festival Musick** (1953) [20’34"]
Come, Holy Ghost (1949) [4’37"]
Bright, Blithe and Brisk* [4’33"]
O God, the Protector of All e (1968) [2’14"]
a Richard K. Pugsley (bass)
b Paul Norman (bass)
c Francis Hempel (bass)
d Luke Norman (baritone)
e Christine Helfritch (soprano)
f Katherine Mary Hamilton (soprano)
g Peter Logan (tenor)
Gloriae Dei Cantores/Elizabeth C. Patterson
* David Chalmers (organ)
** Gloriae Dei Brass Ensemble; James E. Jordan Jr. (organ)
Recorded in Mechanics hall, Worcester, Massachusetts
* and ** in All Saints Church, Worcester, Massachusetts
GLORIAE DEI CANTORES GDCD 016 [73’08+76’08"]


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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.

John Quinn

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