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Faire is the Heaven. Hymns and Anthems
Gordon SLATER (1896-1979) arr. Paul HALLEY (b. 1952) Jesu, the very thought of Thee [4’45"]
Healey WILLAN (1880-1968) Gloria Deo per immense saecula [7’46"]
Sydney CAMPBELL (1909-1974) Sing we merrily unto God our strength [2’19]
Healey WILLAN I beheld her [2’15]; Fair in face [2’19"]; Rise up my love [2’01"]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983) Te Deum [8’22"]
Samuel S. WESLEY (1810-1876) O Thou who camest from above [2’36"]
Imant RAMINSH (b. 1943) Ave verum corpus [5’23"]
John IRELAND (1879-1962) My song is love unknown (descant Paul Halley) [3’15"]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791) Ave verum corpus [3’13"]
Bryan KELLY (b. 1934) Magnificat [3’32"]
W. H. MONK (1823-1904) Abide with me (descant Stephen Crisp) [3’09"]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847) Verleih uns Frieden [4’43"]
William H. HARRIS (1883-1973) Faire is the heaven [5’16"]
Rev. C. C. SCHOLEFIELD (1839-1904) The day Thou gavest (descant Paul Halley) [2’28"]
Choir of St. John’s Church, Elora/Noel Edison
Paul Halley (organ)
Recorded at St. John’s Church, Elora, Ontario, Canada 2 – 6 February, 2002 DDD
NAXOS 8.557037 [63’21"]

 

This is not the first Naxos CD from this source that I’ve heard and enjoyed. This same choir released "Psalms for the Soul", an excellent collection of psalm settings and anthems which are settings of words from the psalms (Naxos 8.554823). Noel Edison runs another choir, the Elora Festival Singers, which comprises professional singers. They were responsible for a fine Vaughan Williams recital (Naxos 8.554826). This latest offering is fully up to the previous standards.

The choir of the Anglican church of St. John’s includes a good number of past and present music students from local universities and, not surprisingly, the standard of singing is very high. For that, of course, the credit must go particularly to Noel Edison, their director for 18 years. He is especially noted as Artistic Director and Conductor of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. The English organist and composer, Paul Halley is now a freelance musician, I think, but between 1977 and 1989 he held the prestigious post of Organist and Choirmaster at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York.

So, with the performers possessing such pedigrees my expectations for this CD were understandably high – and they have been fulfilled.

There are five hymn settings in the recital. In four of these the hymn is sung in a fairly straight fashion, the verses varied nicely between sections of the choir and with effective descants to crown the final verse. However, Paul Halley’s arrangement of Jesu, the very thought of Thee is rather more substantial. Effectively, Halley re-works the hymn as a choral anthem, taking the tune through several keys as well as varying the choral textures. The whole is underpinned by a very important organ part. It’s quite an elaborate setting but I think it works very well.

Fittingly, this Canadian choir gives a prominent place to music by Healey Willan who, though born in England, spent most of his career in Toronto. There he was for most of his working life the Director of Music at the church of St. Mary Magdalene where he directed liturgical music to a degree comparable to the variety and standard of a cathedral. He was a prodigious composer and, not surprisingly, much of his output consisted of church music. All of his music that I’ve heard displays sensitivity and fastidious craftsmanship but I fear there’s also a degree of restraint that can make the music seem understated. Edison and his singers give very respectable and devoted performances of these Willan pieces. However, I felt that in Gloria Deo per immense saecula (track 2) the tempi were perhaps a bit cautious, especially in the long fugal passage with which the piece concludes (track 2, from 4’07"). Another version by the choir of Willan’s old church directed by Robert Hunter Bell. (Virgin 7243 5 45109 2 2) has greater urgency here – they take 6’57" for the whole anthem – and that serves Willan better, I think. However, that Virgin CD may well be deleted now and the main thing is that thanks to this Naxos CD some of Willan’s music will come to a much wider audience in performances that are unlikely to disappoint anyone. The three Marian anthems (tracks 4 – 6) are lovely little pieces and are very well done here.

The Howells Te Deum, written in 1944 as part of his Collegium Regale service setting for King’s College, Cambridge, displays the strong profile that I find is ultimately lacking in those pieces by Willan that I’ve heard. This is very well done by the Canadian choir. They sing strongly in the several unison passages that are a feature of the piece and also deliver the "big moments" but they are equally alive to the many episodes where the music is more restrained and harmonically subtle. This is a good time to mention Paul Halley’s organ accompaniments. They are excellent throughout but he excels in this Howells piece and helps the choir to build a thrilling conclusion.

There are two settings of the Ave verum corpus. Mozart’s is one of the best-known anthems in the repertoire. Indeed, so well known is it that it’s easy to take it for granted, I fear. That’s definitely not the case here. Edison paces it nicely and he and his singers shape the music very well to give a most satisfying performance. I suspect, however, that the a capella setting by Imant Raminsh may be new to many readers, as it was to me. Raminsh was born in Latvia in 1943 but emigrated to Canada in 1948. He has pursued a very active career in music and has a substantial portfolio of compositions to his name in which choral and vocal music predominates. (For more information visit www.composers21.com/compdocs/raminishi.htm) According to the information on that website his Ave verum corpus dates from 1972. It’s a quite lovely piece, written most sympathetically for voices and in a most accessible harmonic language. It’s a rapt piece that the Elora singers sing with great finesse and dedication. I count this piece a real find.

The CD takes its title from the great anthem composed in 1923 (revised 1925) by the English composer, Sir William Harris. As John Mayo tells us in his useful liner note this is held by many to be Harris’s best work. Personally, I’d take issue with this for while I esteem Faire is the heaven greatly I think the much later Bring us , o Lord God (1958) is even finer. I’d love to hear this Canadian choir sing that masterpiece (hint, Naxos!) Both anthems are laid out luxuriantly for double choir and both share the rich home key of D flat. Faire is the heaven is an extremely difficult piece to bring off, demanding great control from both singers and conductor and a wide range of choral tone and dynamics. I’ve heard several fine recordings of it but this newcomer need fear no comparisons and the excellence and responsiveness of this performance is consistent with the standards that are a feature of the whole disc.

In summary, then, this is a very well planned and executed CD. The blend, tuning, control and diction of the choir are excellent throughout. They have been recorded most sympathetically and musically in the acoustic of their home church. The documentation accompanying the disc is good and includes all texts and, where necessary, translations. (The notes are in English and German but the texts are only in English.) This disc has given me great pleasure and at the Naxos price a disc of this quality is not so much a bargain as a steal.

Strongly recommended to all collectors interested in church music. Please, Naxos, let’s have more recordings from this excellent team.
John Quinn

 



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