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, GowersAscension
James MacMillan (b. 1959)

Tremunt videntes angeli (first recording)
Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988)

Preces and Responses (1964)
Richard ALLAIN (b. 1965)

'The Exon Service': Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (first recording)
Patrick GOWERS (b. 1936)

Viri Galilaei
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)

L'ascension *
Also includes two hymns and two psalm settings.
Choir of St. Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh
Susan Hamilton, soprano
Rev. Philip Blackledge, cantor
Simon Nieminski, organ
Matthew Owens, conductor/solo organ*
Recorded in St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral, Edinburgh, Scotland, during February and June 2003.
DELPHIAN DCD 34017 [76.22]


Edinburgh based label Delphian is producing some wonderful discs, A'e Gowden Lyric, a survey of Ronald Stevenson's songs being a particularly magical listening experience. That disc shares with this newcomer the vocal talents of soprano Susan Hamilton but in every other respect, superior quality excepted, the two are very different propositions. Ascension is, as its title suggests, a series of works based on "the powerful imagery of the Ascension". It is intelligently programmed in the format of a choral evensong, with Olivier Messiaen's L'Ascension serving as an extended organ voluntary, following in the wake of shorter choral settings by various modern composers with some more familiar hymns and psalms thrown in. I found it slightly surprising and rather reassuring to find the St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral Choir including works by two of the most prominent and vociferous latter day musical Catholics within the context of their Anglican service, namely Messiaen himself and James MacMillan. It is the latter who gets the ball rolling with Tremunt videntes angeli, one of several premiere recordings featured here and a typically communicative and direct but still challenging utterance from one of our most genuine contemporary voices. The "trembling" of the title relates directly to the texture of the music although the words come from a fifth-century Latin hymn.

Kenneth Leighton remains an underrated if not totally neglected voice of 20th century British music. His early death was a great loss and one only has to hear the Preces and Responses included here to realise the sheer quality of his talents. On one level they are functional church music but they are also glorious, soaring edifices of sound, far easier for a newcomer to his music to appreciate than some of the equally great but more intricate chamber works. Almost as impressive are the two extracts from Richard Allain's Exon Service, written for Exeter's Exon Singers. At times the Nunc Dimittis and the Magnificat reminded me of the best of both Leighton and Messiaen, the latter's influence particularly effective in the "tape-loop" like "halo of sound" employed in the Magnificat. Allain, who is not yet forty, is certainly a name to watch for on the impressive evidence included here. The other living composer represented is Patrick Gowers - his exuberant Viri Galilaei probably owes more to the less experimental but still great tradition in British choral music, represented by, for example, Finzi's God is Gone Up, with which it shares texts, and Vaughan Williams' O, Clap Your Hands. The aforementioned hymns and psalms are as well done as the pieces described above but pale somewhat in the prestigious company. The remaining organ work is something else again - Messiaen's L'Ascension started life as an orchestral work but the composer made this organ version within a year of the 1932 original. It is archetypal Messiaen in many ways, from the deep religion that inspires it to the highly original musical content. I don't think Matthew Owens' performance here, not that there is anything wrong with it, really sets out to be compared with those by, say, the composer himself or Jennifer Bate. That misses the point of the programming on this disc, where the works sits as a part, a pretty significant one, of a greater whole. It would though be nice to think that someone hearing L'Ascension from this source went on to make a wider exploration of Messiaen's often wonderful music - for piano, chamber forces and orchestra, as well as the ubiquitous organ. I thoroughly enjoyed this disc and have listened to it several times since receiving it for review, there is something for everyone with any interest at all in contemporary religious settings and inspirations. Superb.

Neil Horner


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