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Priory Records £13

British Church Composers Series, Vol. 1
John SANDERS (1933-2003)

Festival Te Deum** [7’11"]
A Prayer of Cardinal Newman [3’20"]
The Firmament** [6’36"]
Soliloquy for Organ** [5’07"]
The Gloucester Service: Magnificat* [5’07"]; Nunc Dimittis* [3’35"]
Dedication* [2’13"]
My beloved spake [2’58"]
Requiem [23’13"]
I will lift up mine eyes* [4’01"]
Toccata for organ* [4’02"]
A Prayer* [3’21"]
The Choir of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge/Geoffrey Webber
Organists: Francesca Massey* and Thomas Hewitt Jones**
Recorded in Gloucester Cathedral 21-24 March, 2004 DDD
PRIORY PRCD 831 [72’34"]


Nowadays many musicians tend to make "career moves" at fairly frequent intervals. It is interesting to note, therefore, that when Dr. John Sanders retired as organist of Gloucester Cathedral in 1994 he was only the third person to have occupied that post in the twentieth century. He himself had been Organist since 1967 and his two predecessors had also served for long terms, Herbert Sumsion between 1928 and 1967 and Sir Herbert Brewer from 1896 until his death in 1928. Sanders’ connection with Gloucester pre-dated his appointment as Organist for he was Sumsion’s assistant from 1958 until he was appointed Organist of Chester Cathedral in 1963.

Throughout his time at Gloucester John Sanders was a respected and popular figure and I well recall being in the congregation for his very last evensong. After he had played the voluntary (the Widor Toccata) the entire congregation accorded him a prolonged standing ovation. I never knew him personally but, coming to live in Gloucester in the late 1980s, it was impossible to be involved in local musical life and be unaware of his strong and wholly positive influence.

His retirement, away from the demanding daily routine of directing the musical life of a cathedral (to say nothing of the Three Choirs Festival, which was held at Gloucester on eight occasions during his term of office) gave him much more leisure for composition and it is perhaps significant that the majority of the pieces here recorded were written after he stepped down from the organ loft at Gloucester.

There are a number of very appropriate threads drawn together by this release. It was a splendid idea to invite the choir of Gonville and Caius College to make this recording for Sanders was Organ Scholar of that college from 1952. Dr. Sanders himself chose most of the music for this release and wrote liner notes for most of the items. It had been intended that he would be present for the recording but sadly this was not to be for complications following surgery brought about his sudden and unexpected death just before Christmas 2003. As I suspect was always intended, Priory have issued this CD to coincide with the Three Choirs Festival at Gloucester (August 7 – 14, 2004), a festival which has been dedicated to his memory and which features several of his compositions, including some of the works on this disc. There’s another nice coincidence in that Thomas Hewitt Jones, one of the organ scholars at Gonville and Caius, is the nephew of the Cheltenham composer, Tony Hewitt Jones, who devised the theme on which Sanders based his Soliloquy for Organ. Fittingly, it’s Thomas Hewitt Jones who plays the piece and he does so very well though I must say I found the exuberant Toccata a more obviously appealing work.

As I said, most of the music here recorded was written in his retirement but some earlier pieces are included. The earliest is My beloved spake, written in 1958 for the wedding of a college friend and first performed at that wedding by the choir of Gonville and Caius College. Sanders says of the piece that "some of the harmonies may be reminiscent" of his composition teacher, Patrick Hadley. Hadley himself set the same text in 1936, though his work includes an organ accompaniment whereas that by Sanders is a capella. Hadley’s piece does seem to exert a beneficent influence, especially at the words "Arise my love" (track8, 2’00") but Sanders is his own man and his is a fluent, assured piece with sensuous harmonies that are wholly appropriate to the text. In fact this is but one of three wedding anthems on the disc. The others, Dedication (2003) and I will lift up my eyes, written for the wedding of Sanders’ own daughter in 1999, are just as fine. All three must have made splendid wedding presents. Of I will lift up my eyes Sanders says that "the spirit of Howells was present when I was writing this music." I would agree, for Sanders’ exquisite setting has much of the harmonic richness of Howells and also a similar musical fastidiousness and responsiveness to words.

The opening item on the programme is the Festival Te Deum of 1960. In 1962 Sanders orchestrated it at the request of Herbert Sumsion for performance at the Three Choirs Festival. In this guise it was heard again at the opening concert of the 2004 Festival. Though the version for large choir with orchestra is impressive and rich I must say I have a preference for the original version as recorded here. It’s a confident and economical setting. This year’s Three Choirs Festival programme contains the comment that "Many settings of the Te Deum laudamus are episodic, come to too many climaxes and lose impetus in the middle; this setting is a model of tight structuring and is grateful on the voice and on the ear." Well said!

Sanders made three settings of the evening canticles, of which the Gloucester Service was the first. A fine setting for Hereford followed (presumably written for his old friend and colleague, Roy Massey) and one, which I have not heard, for Lichfield in 2002. What a shame there was no setting for Worcester to give Three Choirs symmetry. The Gloucester canticles emphasise the feminine side of these texts, Sanders explains. However, in the Magnificat this does not prevent an appropriate virility at "He hath showed strength with His arm". There’s also a majestic, celebratory "Glory be", common to both canticles but this leads to a soft, slightly questioning "Amen". A lyrical bass solo (well taken) dominates the first half of the Nunc Dimittis but at the words "to be a light to lighten the Gentiles" the music rises to a sumptuous brief climax before receding again. This fine set of canticles receives a performance worthy of the music.

At the heart of the programme is Sanders’ Requiem (1998) for unaccompanied choir. This is cast in eight short movements, which includes as well as the Ordinary of the Mass for the Dead and passages from the Proper of that Mass two additional movements. These are a passage from the Russian Orthodox Kontakion of the Departed (as the Offertory) and the wondrous text after John Donne, "Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening." In a way these were daring choices by Sanders and his librettist, Canon Heavisides, the Precentor of Gloucester Cathedral. Would a solitary extract from Russian Orthodox liturgy fit in? Could Sanders match the memorable setting of the Donne words by Sir William Harris (a piece he must have directed often)? In both cases the answer is emphatically in the affirmative.

There are countless felicitous touches in this work which sounds to be so understandingly written for the voices. The two movements already mentioned are eloquent and original. So too is the ‘Pie Jesu’, set as a gentle, lilting berceuse and written as a touching tribute to Sanders’ own granddaughter, who died in infancy. The concluding ‘In Paradisum’ is marvellous. It begins with a lovely soprano solo (outstandingly sung here) accompanied by the other female voices. Many composers have set this whole text quietly but in Sanders’ setting at the words "Chorus angelorum" there’s a great outburst of joy, as if the heavenly hosts are waiting to welcome the souls of the departed.

This is a consoling and dignified Requiem of great beauty. In particular I’m struck by the fact that every time there’s a reference to light in the text Sanders responds with incandescent, luminous harmonies. The other word that clearly fires his imagination is "Requiem" ("rest"). This fine, eloquent work deserves to be well known and widely performed and the wholly sympathetic advocacy it receives here should assist greatly.


Let me quickly mention two more pieces. Cardinal Newman’s marvellous words receive a very beautiful, eloquent and sincere setting for unaccompanied choir. The concluding "Amens" are particularly satisfying. The very last piece on the disc is also Sanders’ last composition. A Prayer was completed not long before his last illness and received its first performance at his memorial service in a packed Gloucester Cathedral in February 2004. It’s an eloquent summation of the musical virtues so evident throughout this CD for it combines sincerity, simplicity of utterance, harmonic beauty, melodic grace and a discerning eye for a text.

All the music in this recital exhibits great compositional and technical skill. But above all the pieces are the work of a practical musician who was exceptionally well versed in the capabilities of the human voice and the organ. His music challenges the performers but is never difficult for its own sake. In short, the music is intended to be enjoyed by both performers and listeners.

John Sanders is expertly served by Geoffrey Webber and his fine choir. The balance is faultless as is tuning, and the singers’ diction is always admirably clear. The singers are young and their voices fresh but there is no suggestion of any lack of vocal maturity. They make a lovely sound and the various solos are all very well done. Both organists play extremely well, clearly relishing the capabilities of the Gloucester instrument. The engineers have produced excellent, clear but atmospheric sound using the tricky acoustics of Gloucester Cathedral to good effect. Finally the documentation is first rate. All the texts are given and the notes are mostly by John Sanders himself with a few by his son Jonathan, who also contributes an affectionate tribute to his father. Praise be, all the notes are set in clear type, something one can’t always take for granted these days.

This is billed as the first volume in a new series from Priory. The standard for this series has been set at a very high level from the outset. The CD is a fitting tribute to an excellent musician. It also provides proof in abundance that fine liturgical music is still being written to enlighten us in these troubled times. I recommend this CD with the greatest possible enthusiasm.

John Quinn



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