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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Sacred Choral Music

Give unto the Lord (Psalm XXIX), Op. 74 [7í52"]
Ave verum corpus, Op. 2, No. 1 [2í44"]
Ave Maria, Op. 2, No. 2 [2í25"]
Ave maris stella, Op. 2, No. 3 [4í03"]
O hearken Thou, Op. 64 [3í33"]
Te Deum laudamus, Op. 34, No. 1 [11í01"]
Benedictus, Op. 34, No. 2 [7í03"]
O salutaris hostia [2í53"]
Great is the Lord (Psalm XLVIII), Op. 67 [9í39"]
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me (from The Apostles) [6í53"]
Go, Song of Mine, Op. 57 [4í44"]
Seek Him that maketh the seven stars (from The Light of Life, Op. 29) [6í45"]
Light of the World (from The Light of Life, Op. 29) [4í26"]
Choir of St, Johnís College, Cambridge/Christopher Robinson
Jonathan Vaughn (organ)
Recorded in St. Johnís College Chapel, Cambridge, 8 Ė 10 July, 2003 DDD
NAXOS 8.557288 [74í20"]

 

This is the tenth disc in the admirable series of recordings of English church music made for Naxos by this choir. I presume this is the final instalment in the series since the recording was set down immediately prior to the retirement of Christopher Robinson after twelve years as the distinguished Director of Music at St. Johnís. I can only regret that, apparently, there was not an opportunity to make a disc devoted to Parry.

Having heard, enjoyed and admired the entire series I find myself a little ambivalent about this latest offering. I should say at once that the standards of singing, organ playing and recording are all fully on a par with the previous issues. That is to say, they are of the highest quality. What is more uneven, I fear, is the music included in the programme (and I write as a committed Elgarian.) One senses an element of scraping the barrel to put together a programme. To be sure, there are some fine works here, especially the mighty Great is the Lord and the lovely O hearken Thou. However, I do think that itís stretching things a little to include the fine part song, Go, Song of Mine in a collection of sacred music. Furthermore the three little pieces that comprise Op. 2 and the very early setting of O salutaris hostia are, frankly, of rather limited interest.

The three anthems that constitute Op. 2, though not published until 1907 take us back to the years in the late 1880s when Elgar was organist of St. Georgeís Roman Catholic Church in Worcester. He wrote quite a bit of music for his choir but, so far as I know, most of it remained unpublished. However, a few weeks before his 50th birthday he resurrected some of this music. As Jerrold Northrop Moore puts it in his magisterial Edward Elgar: A Creative Life (1984): "From fragments of anthems sketched long ago for the choir of St Georgeís Church in Worcester he culled an Ave Maria and an Ave maris stella". These he coupled with the Ave verum corpus, which had been published in 1902, and sent them to Novelloís for publication as his Op. 2. I have to say that all three pieces are a bit conventional. The same applies to the O salutaris hostia, which probably was another St. Georgeís piece.

Far more interesting and characteristic is the setting of the Te Deum and its companion canticle, the Benedictus. Elgar was commissioned to write these pieces for the opening service of the 1897 Three Choirs Festival. The commission came from G. R. Sinclair, organist of Hereford Cathedral where the Festival was held that year. (Sinclair was later immortalised in Variation 11 of the Enigma Variations.) These were not the first pieces by Elgar to be heard at a Three Choirs Festival, the Froissart overture had been played at Worcester in 1890. However, the commission for the opening service was a prestigious one. Elgar responded with a strong, direct Te Deum which, though he was still trying to establish himself as a composer on a national stage, sounds like a confident statement of intent. The St. Johnís forces give a splendid account of the work and are similarly effective in the generally more reflective Benedictus.

The disc also contains two big anthems from Elgarís maturity. Give unto the Lord was written for another important liturgical occasion, the 1914 Festival of the Sons of the Clergy at St. Paulís Cathedral. This fine setting combines musical splendour and passages of more subdued beauty. It makes a marvellous opening to this CD. Give unto the Lord, first heard in Westminster Abbey in 1912, is, if anything, even finer. The choirís first phrase is especially memorable, itís quintessential Elgar. Thereís an important bass solo, which is well sung here, and towards the end Elgar brings back the opening material at the words "For this God is our God". The anthem is thrillingly performed here; the choir gives its all without any hint of over-singing. By contrast, the other mature anthem, O hearken Thou is wholly reflective in mood. Itís a little gem, written for the coronation of King George V in 1911, and this St. Johnís performance is a lovely one.

The recital also includes extracts from two oratorios. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me constitutes the prologue to The Apostles and is quite often heard as a stand-alone anthem (indeed, Iíve sung it in this way several times myself.) It works very well in this format because it is a self-contained movement within the oratorio. The singers and organist do it very well here and I particularly appreciated their fastidious attention to the important dynamic contrasts.

Iím not quite so sure that the two extracts from the earlier oratorio, The Light of Life, work quite as well when divorced from their context. However, both receive strong performances here and the solo tenor in ĎSeek Him that maketh the seven starsí acquits himself well. One small point of detail puzzled me when listening to this item. The words that the choir sings are exactly as in my copy of the Novello vocal score of the oratorio but the words sung by the tenor soloist are quite different. I donít know if an alternative version exists; perhaps a Music Web reader can help?

As I indicated earlier, anyone approaching this CD can be confident that the performances and recorded sound are up to the very high standards set earlier in this series. There are also good notes and full texts. Not all of the music is top-drawer Elgar but the programme still includes much that is highly enjoyable. Collectors of this series will need no encouragement from me to invest in this CD. Those unfamiliar with Elgarís smaller-scale choral music will find this an excellent and inexpensive introduction.

John Quinn

see also review by Jonathan Woolf



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