The Vasari Singers
is one of Britain’s finest choirs, as
I know from having acquired quite a
few of their recordings over a long
period. However, I hadn’t realised that
the choir has been in existence for
To celebrate that significant
anniversary the choir and their conductor,
Jeremy Backhouse, had the inspired idea
to commission not a single anniversary
work but instead shorter pieces from
no less than ten composers. Every single
work on this CD is here recorded for
the very first time and nine of them
are Vasari silver jubilee commissions.
The tenth, from Francis Potts, has evolved
into a much bigger work which the choir
will première in 2006. The works
on the disc that were not commissioned
for the anniversary are those by Jonathan
Dove, Jonathan Rathbone and James MacMillan.
I may as well say straightaway
that all the pieces are of high quality
- and some more than that - and without
exception they receive superb performances.
So if I don’t mention a piece specifically
that should not be taken as implying
anything adverse. It’s interesting,
however, that almost all the composers
who received commissions have responded
with pieces that are predominantly subdued
in tone. Does that say something about
the times in which we live, I wonder?
For the most part the pieces, including
the three that weren’t commissioned,
are rooted in the language of the "traditional"
church anthem. However, these works
expand, renew and enrich that tradition:
there is nothing dull or routine here.
In fact these compositions give one
confidence that liturgical music of
high quality is still being written
It’s worth quoting
from Jeremy Backhouse’s very interesting
liner note, in which he explains the
idea behind the commissions. He tells
us that his brief to the composers was
that "their work should be able
to sit comfortably within the context
of a cathedral Evensong but that it
could also look beyond any constraints
of Liturgy or formal religious doctrine
to embrace a wider, more ecumenical
audience ..." I would say that
for the most part the composers have
met that challenge successfully.
The piece by Jonathan
Dove, one of the few that is accompanied,
is imaginative and colourful. The choir
starts off quietly, in contrast to the
virtuoso organ part but Dove builds
the work, a setting of words from Psalm
104, to an exciting conclusion, driven
on by the organ. The piece that follows
it, by Jonathan Rathbone, confronts
a major challenge head-on. He was inspired
by the famous anthems, When David
heard, by Thomas Weelkes and Thomas
Tomkins. How on earth do you write a
setting of the same words that avoids
either being a pastiche, a pale imitation,
or something that is dwarfed by those
earlier masterpieces? It seems to me
that Rathbone has reinterpreted the
earlier works in a powerful and individual
way. Like his predecessors, he responds
to the words with music of subdued but
nonetheless deep grief. Indeed, as is
the case with the Weelkes and Tomkins
anthems, Rathbone’s offering is all
the more effective because he employs
restraint. The piece is sung with superb
control and the hushed ending is particularly
I was greatly taken
with Gabriel Jackson’s piece, Now
I have known, O Lord, for which
he has used words by a 10th
century Sufi mystic. The imagery of
the words themselves is wonderful –
one might imagine John Tavener setting
them. As I read them they are the words
of a devout and humble man to his Maker.
Jackson writes "the text seemed
to demand a setting of great inwardness."
The anthem begins quietly, in a mood
of rapt adoration and continues in this
subdued and intimate vein for most of
its duration. Eventually a brief, radiant
climax is achieved for the penultimate
line of text "In wondrous and ecstatic
Grace" but for the following words,
"I feel Thee touch my inmost ground"
the music sinks back into mystic adoration.
This is a quite splendid piece and the
Vasari Singers do it full justice.
Organist and composer,
Jeremy Filsell, contributes a setting
of words by Alice Meynell (1847-1922).
The music is powerful and original and,
perhaps unsurprisingly, the organ plays
an important role. Filsell uses the
text imaginatively and his music responds
to and enhances the imagery of each
individual stanza in an impressive way.
I confess I am still
coming to terms with a couple of the
pieces. Will Todd has already had a
major work, St Cuthbert, recorded
on CD (review).
His Vasari commission, Angel Song
II, is inspired by the idea of angels
singing on Christmas night. It begins,
not jubilantly, as you might anticipate,
but quietly, with the angelic choirs
heard as from a distance. Todd says
"the music weaves a gentle melody
over the aleatoric textures of the accompanying
voices." In fact, the music is
hushed throughout – this is about as
far as you could get from the angelic
"Glorias" in Ding,
Dong, Merrily on High! It’s ethereal
and atmospheric but I’m not entirely
sure if it works as a stand-alone piece.
Todd suggests that he might one day
incorporate the piece into a much larger
one and I think it might just sit more
comfortably there as part of a greater
The other work about
which I’m unsure about at present is
Barrie Bignold’s Peace. I think
part of my difficulty stems from the
text, specially written by Bob Cassidy.
Cassidy’s words are not easily assimilated,
at least not by me, and as Bignold says
in a note: "This motet is all about
the poem." So far I find this piece
the least successful on the disc but
that’s a wholly subjective view and
one that I may modify with further listening.
Already I can say that it contains some
eloquent music and the ending is lovely.
As it happens, the
final work on the disc, by Ward Swingle,
which immediately follows the Bignold,
also sets words written specially for
the composer to set. However, Tony Vincent
Isaacs’ Give us this day is a
much more straightforward poem and it
has inspired Swingle to write a very
simple, direct four-part anthem. The
music rarely rises above piano and the
little refrain after each verse is beguiling.
Though the music may sound simple
it clearly needs a fine and sensitive
choir to do it well. Happily, with the
Vasari Singers on hand there’s no chance
that the piece won’t be done justice.
The idea of these Vasari’s
jubilee commissions was an imaginative
and stimulating concept. I believe that
the vision behind it has been vindicated
triumphantly and the commissions have
inspired some excellent additions to
the choral repertory. I hope that enterprising
choirs will investigate these pieces
for they all merit wider circulation.
However, only expert choirs need apply!
There are very useful,
short notes on each piece and as you
may have gathered from my comments above
these are all by the respective composers
... with the exception of James MacMillan.
Full texts are also provided. The recorded
sound is first class.
In summary, this is
a most stimulating collection of music
and it is hard to imagine that it could
be performed better than by Jeremy Backhouse
and his superb choir. I congratulate
them on their silver jubilee and on
the imaginative way in which they have
marked it; a way that I hope will benefit
other choirs as well. This outstanding
CD is already on my shortlist for Recordings
of the Year and I recommend it enthusiastically.