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