The arrival of this CD is a bit of a surprise, albeit a most welcome
one. The previous seven volumes in this series were recorded
between 1989 and 1998, with the last of those recordings actually
appearing in the shops the following year, 1999. I’d collected
the previous releases but had presumed the series had run its
course. I can only presume that this final volume has appeared
as a valedictory to John Scott who was Organist of St. Paul’s
from 1990 until the summer of 2004, when he crossed the Atlantic to assume a similar post at St. Thomas’s Church, Fifth Avenue, New York.
The programme contains an attractive selection of pieces which are,
for the most part, typical staples of the English church music
repertoire. In this, it is similar to the previous volumes.
But, in common with the earlier issues, there are also some
intriguing novelties. The other respect in which the disc is
typical of the series is the excellence of the performances.
The choir is on fine form and John Scott is clearly bequeathing
to his successor, Malcolm Archer, a fine body of singers. In
several of the pieces they are well supported by Huw Williams
at the mighty St. Paul’s organ. Sometimes Williams is able to “let the merry organ go” but
elsewhere he provides accompaniment of excellent discretion.
John Scott’s direction is consistently sympathetic and he clearly
is at home in all the different musical idioms in this programme.
Just one or two of the items strike me as a little dull. Wesley’s anthem
is one such. For much of its course the music is vigorous and
forthright but it outstays its welcome. It’s a long wait to
reach the simple eloquence with which Wesley sets the text of
the closing pages, ‘Lead me, Lord’ (track 1, 9’23”). The Goss
setting is also a bit tedious but the rest is splendid.
Some of the pieces were new to me. Whitlock’s Glorious in Heaven,
written in 1925, is scored for two five-part choirs. It’s confident
and fluent and I liked it very much. John Scott is President
of the Percy Whitlock Trust and his enthusiasm for Whitlock’s
music is evident here. I also enjoyed making the acquaintance
of the brief, bright and bouncy setting of the Jubilate Deo
by Scott’s predecessor at St. Paul’s,
Christopher Dearnley and also of the affecting miniature by
Two splendid pieces, one each by Stanford and by Parry, form the cornerstone
of the collection which is fitting since these composer’s music
is so deeply embedded in the repertoire of most Anglican cathedral
choirs. Stanford’s anthem is strong and forthright, yet cultured
at the same time. The same description applies to the performance
that it receives here from Scott and his choir. Parry’s Songs
of Farewell is one of the greatest masterpieces of unaccompanied
choral music in the English repertoire. The last in the set,
Lord, let me know mine end, is a superb and eloquent
composition, skilfully and richly laid out for double choir.
This is deeply felt music and John Scott successfully achieves
a fine balance between giving the long phrases the time that
they need to breathe while at the same time keeping the music
on the move.
The recital closes with three contrasting pieces, each of which was
first performed by Scott and this choir at special services
in St Paul’s in the last couple of years. The
young Bulgarian composer, Dobrinka Tabakova’s anthem, Praise,
was first heard in the cathedral in 2002 at one of the special
services held there to mark the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth
II. It was, apparently, her first venture into the genre but
it strikes me as being highly successful. For the most part
the music is more restrained than one might expect in view of
the title of the piece. Miss Tabakova conjures some unusual
and intriguing sonorities from the choir and the discreet organ
accompaniment. The slow moving music is highly effective and
makes good use of the vast acoustics of the cathedral. It sounds
a demanding piece to sing but I hope this won’t prevent other
choirs from taking it up for it merits wide exposure, I believe.
So too does John Scott’s own Behold, O God our defender. This
was composed, also in 2002, for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Service,
one of the centrepieces of the entire Jubilee celebration. Aptly,
Scott chose to set a text which had been set by Herbert Howells,
a composer he much admires, for the Queen’s coronation service
back in 1952. It’s a reflective, tranquil setting which, as
Scott openly acknowledges, is stylistically influenced by Howells.
It’s a lovely piece.
The concluding piece is also the most recent on the CD. John Rutter
wrote A crown of glory for a celebratory service
in St. Paul’s in 2004. It’s a fine anthem, grand
and majestic and, as usual with Rutter, expertly written for
the voices. It culminates in a noble, broad and very singable
tune (track 16, 3’27”). Rutter’s work provides a splendid ending
to the programme and very effectively brings down the curtain
on John Scott’s distinguished tenure at St. Paul’s.
The highly reverberant acoustic of St. Paul’s poses an undoubted challenge to recording engineers. However, the
Hyperion team, both of whom have been involved with several
previous releases in this series, have the measure of it. Solo
voices, trebles in particular, can sound a little lost occasionally
but in general the choir is faithfully reproduced, as is the
organ. There are excellent notes by William McVicker, who provides
informed and stimulating commentaries on the music, as he has
throughout the series. Indeed, as always with Hyperion, the
documentation is a model of its kind and includes the full texts,
with English translations where appropriate.
This is just one of innumerable CDs of great distinction that Hyperion
has issued over the years. Many readers will know that the label
is currently appealing a legal decision that went against it
last year. If the appeal fails Hyperion faces a legal bill estimated
to be more than £1 million. Such a massive liability would almost
certainly mean the collapse of the label. Without venturing
an opinion on the rights and wrongs of the case (though I have
a very firm view on the subject) it would be a black day indeed
for the record industry and for collectors if that were to happen
and the invaluable and still-developing legacy of the late Ted
Perry were to be lost to us.
We must hope that Hyperion weathers this storm for releases of this
kind are too precious to be lost to collectors. This present
disc is a fitting conclusion to a highly distinguished series
of CDs made for the label by John Scott during his tenure at
St. Paul’s. I enjoyed it greatly and have no hesitation in recommending it
to all lovers of the English choral tradition.