As I type this review
the opening of the 2004 Three Choirs
Festival on August 7 is exactly four
weeks away. It’s a very appropriate
time to review this CD because all the
composers represented here had close
associations with the Festival and Donald
Hunt was, like Herbert Sumsion (whose
pupil he was, as well as his assistant
at Gloucester Cathedral between 1948
and 1954), heavily involved in the direction
of the festivals during his period as
Organist of Worcester Cathedral (1975-1996).
As Dr. Hunt points out in his very useful
notes, the composers were, in fact,
especially linked with Gloucestershire
and that’s also apposite since this
year’s Festival will be held in my adopted
home city of Gloucester.
These recordings were
made some time ago and I believe they
originally appeared on the Abbey Alpha
label (CDCA 906). This reissue by Griffin
is most welcome.
The performances here
demonstrate the success of Donald Hunt
in fashioning a fine and flexible choir
at Worcester. The singers blend well
and tuning and diction are admirable.
The treble line has a nice cutting edge
and the three lower parts fill out the
textures admirably. The recording engineers
have taken the decision to balance the
choir reasonably close (but not too
close) to the microphones and this works
very well, I think. They’re present
enough for clarity but not so close
that there’s no ambience round the voices.
Also the organ is very well caught but
doesn’t drown the singers.
The music itself, of
course, is in the blood of these singers
and of Hunt himself (he was born in
Gloucester.) As a result the performances
all have the ring of conviction and
authority. The Finzi anthem provides
an arresting opening (though the more
contemplative central section is evocatively
done). Howells’ superb anthem, Like
as the hart is equally successful.
It’s a languid piece but one that has
an inner strength. Its aching lyricism
is sensitively conveyed by Hunt and
his choir. They also do the splendid
St. Paul’s Magnificat very well – but
what a pity the companion Nunc Dimittis
I was delighted that
some music by Herbert Sumsion was included.
His may not have been a major compositional
voice but he wrote some excellent music
for church choirs and, of course, he
was a splendid servant of the Three
Choirs Festival and of Gloucester cathedral
during no less than 39 years as organist
of that cathedral (1928-1967). The work
included here was written for Donald
Hunt himself in 1981. Dr. Hunt points
out in his notes that this is a relatively
rare example of Sumsion writing for
unaccompanied voices. It’s a setting
of the "By the waters of Babylon" text
from Psalm 137. I felt the piece took
a little while to get going and thematically
it’s a bit limited but it’s undeniably
atmospheric and effective.
Donald Hunt modestly
says of his own God be gracious,
which was published in 1987 that
"the harmonic language is possibly not
in keeping with the remainder of the
works on offer [in the recital], but
the composer is well aware of his musical
roots." I’d certainly agree with the
second part of that sentence. It is
a more modern piece than the others
recorded here but Hunt is very loyal
to his roots and I don’t believe this
piece is out of place here in any way.
Indeed, it demonstrates an ability to
build on and renew the established traditions
which this CD celebrates. I hadn’t heard
this anthem before but it strikes me
as a fine one and it amply justifies
its place here.
I’ll pass over the
shorter works by Holst and Vaughan Williams,
pausing only to say that both are very
well done and both are well worth hearing.
The Vaughan Williams Mass, however,
is very well known and rightly so since
it is surely one of the finest twentieth
century a cappella choral works.
Hunt aptly describes it as "the vocal
counterpoint" of the Tallis Fantasia.
He and his choir give it a very fine
performance indeed. The (unnamed) soloists
do very well, the treble especially,
and the choir sing this timeless, very
beautiful music extremely responsively.
Hunt shapes and sculpts the music idiomatically
and caringly but in such a way that
one is never conscious of the shaping.
In so doing he demonstrates his deep
understanding not just of this piece
but of the roots of English polyphony
from which it sprang. All credit too
to the engineers who have captured the
acoustic of Worcester Cathedral excellently.
As a result the acoustic of the building
surrounds the music like an aura and
enhances the music as RVW surely intended.
So, this is a very
welcome reissue. There are a couple
of minor production flaws. I noticed
a few small typographical errors in
the notes which better sub-editing should
have picked up. Also, given that this
disc essentially celebrates the choral
tradition of the Three Choirs counties
of Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and
Worcestershire I think the choice of
a water colour of the Thames and the
Houses of Parliament is a little unimaginative.
No matter, these are minor blemishes
that do not affect enjoyment of the
disc itself. I enjoyed it very much
and happily recommend it.