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James MACMILLAN (b.1959) Tremunt videntes angeli
Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929 - 1988) Preces and Responses (1964)
Percy Carter BUCK(1871 - 1947) Eternal Monarch, King Most high
Plainchant Psalm XLVII
Plainchant Psalm CVII
Richard ALLAIN (b.1965) Magnificat from the Exon service
Richard ALLAIN (b.1965) Nunc Dimittis from the Exon service
Patrick GOWERS (b.1936) Viri Galilaei
Robert WILLIAMS (1782 - 1818) Hail the Day that Sees him Rise
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908 - 1992) L’Ascenscion (a)
Choir of St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Edinburgh
Susan Hamilton (soprano)
Revd Philip Blackledge (cantor)
Simon Nieminski (organ)
Matthew Owens (solo organ) (a)
Matthew Owens (director)
Recorded February and June 2003, St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Edinburgh


Recording CDs based on the service of Evensong can be a problem as the music for the service does not really stretch to a complete disc. For this disc from St. Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh, they have taken the imaginative solution of producing a fine service for Ascension Day and then including Messiaen’s ‘L’Ascension’ as an extremely uplifting postlude. Additional interest arises from all of the music being by composers working in the 20th century and much of it has a particular association with St. Mary’s.

The disc opens with the first recording of James MacMillan’s ‘Tremunt videntes angeli’. Written for St. Mary’s Cathedral, it was performed at the dedication of the Cathedral’s Millennium Window designed by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi. The motet sets words from the fifth century Latin hymn Aeterne rex altissime. It opens in stunning fashion with a series of canonic melismas sung over a low drone bass. The melismas are first sung by the lower voices and then by the upper voices. The improvisatory element implicit in this opening is developed by the composer as he allows the lower voices to improvise, creating a murmuring soundscape over which the trebles sing the text ‘tibi sit gloria’. This is a tremendous piece, successfully melding modern techniques with a sense of history to give us music that sounds both modern and as if it has existed for ever. It is the sort of piece that inspires in me not only admiration, but the earnest wish that I had been able to write it. St. Mary’s Choir gives the piece a fine, committed performance. Whilst all the other music on the disc is exceptionally fine, this is a superb opening.

Kenneth Leighton’s ‘Preces and Responses’ were written for St. Mary’s in 1964. They have since become well known throughout the Anglican Communion. Settings of responses can sometimes come over as stilted or awkward, but Leighton produces music of great harmonic interest and rhythmic vitality which still manages to sound natural and of its place.

The office hymn uses a 19th century text by J.M. Neale which is a paraphrase of the Latin hymn Aeterne rex altissime used by James MacMillan. As with most Anglican choirs on disc, the choir here sing as if they have a cathedral full of people to support, whereas on a recording they could have produced something a little more subtle. The psalms are sung to the plainsong tones rather than traditional Anglican chant.

Richard Allain’s ‘Exon Service’ was composed for St. Mary’s musical director Matthew Owens and his choir The Exon Singers. The Magnificat opens with the trebles and altos divided into four-parts, each singing one of the plainsong Magnificats. The intention is to create a halo of sound around the soprano soloists singing the English text. This works well once the piece gets started, but I did rather feel that the opening sounded merely untidy. Soprano soloist Susan Hamilton sings both this and the Nunc Dimittis with lovely firm, warm tone. Both pieces are punctuated by rather uncompromising bravura flourishes on the organ. In the Nunc Dimittis, the soprano and tenor sing the text soaring over the choir. This is the sort of setting which stretches these traditional forms to their limit and I would be extremely interested to know how it works in the context of a service.

Patrick Gowers’ ‘Viri Galilei’ sets two texts, the proper for Ascension Day and Bishop Christopher Wordsworth’s hymn ‘See the Conqueror Mounts in Triumph’. The result starts mysteriously and gradually builds to a glorious conclusion. Like the other pieces on this disc this deserves to be better known and it receives a fine performance from the St. Mary’s forces.

Matthew Owens, having directed the choir of all the previous pieces then turns to the organ for the concluding piece in the programme, Messiaen’s L’Ascension. Composed in 1932 as a set of symphonic meditations for orchestra, Messiaen subsequently produced an organ version with a new third movement. It is not as rhythmically complex as some of his later works but has some wonderful moments which look forward to his later works.

This is a tremendous recital and showcases both the talents of St. Mary’s Cathedral choir and a range of fine contemporary Scottish composers.

Robert Hugill

see also review by Neil Horner

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