Recordings of the works
of Healey Willan seem to come in spurts.
In 1982 there was the entry in the Anthology
of Canadian Music series, which
contained sixteen of his pieces. In
the mid-nineties EMI of Canada produced
several records of his church music,
two of them with his own Choir of St.
Mary Magdalene in Toronto. Priory Records
has recorded three of his settings of
the Evening Canticles in their Magnificat
and Nunc Dimittis series. Now Naxos
seems to have started a new wave with
their CD of Anthony Wedd playing Willan
organ works and this record of his sacred
music (as well as the four works on
their previous album Faire Is the
Heaven). Let us hope that Naxos
will continue with more recordings of
this composer who registers - if you'll
pardon the expression - with most listeners
as the composer of a few liturgical
works and Christmas pieces and an organ
prelude or two. In fact he wrote in
every musical form imaginable.
Willan wrote more
than a few sacred works, hundreds in
fact, ranging from fauxbourdons and
hymn tunes to large-scale choral/orchestral
works. One liturgical type he was fond
of was the hymn-anthem, writing a number
of them for both Anglican and Lutheran
use. This disc contains three of the
later Anglican ones; the first starts
off as a straightforward setting of
the tune, but develops into quite a
sophisticated piece on Ye Watchers
and Ye Holy
Ones (Lasst uns erfreuen).
The Elora Festival Singers handle this
very well and really fill St. Johnís
church. Slightly earlier in date are
the hymn-anthems on the tunes Picardy
and O Quanta Qualia. The first
is not especially interesting, but the
second is much more impressive with
wide harmonic spacing that the Singers
have a great time with. Willan also
wrote a Hymn Anthem on St. Osmond,
but on this disc we have his own tune
for the hymn and a fine one it is. The
composerís ability to write simply but
not cloyingly is evident here.
Willan also wrote "original"
anthems - more than thirty. The four
performed by the Elora Festival Singers
take in a range from when Willan was
27 up to the O Praise the Lord
of 1963, written when he was 83. The
earliest anthem and earliest piece on
the disc is I looked, and behold
a white cloud, written six years
before Willan emigrated to Canada. This
shows Willan still under the spell of
the great Victorians, but is well constructed.
The Festival Singers bring out all its
best aspects. The anthem that gives
its name to this recording was begun
in 1924, but never completed - Willan
would sometimes begin a new piece rather
than finish an old one. In this
case the composer and Willan-biographer
F.R.C. Clarke completed it in 1979.
Noel Edison gets a full, ceremonial
sound out of this anthem, although the
organ tends to be over-reverberant.
The piece itself is somewhat uneven,
but the second section and Clarkeís
Alleluias are very moving. Willanís
wide harmonies are again a prominent
feature. Christ hath a garden
was written for the resources of a rural
parish rather than St. Mary Magdalen.
It is very forthright and with a simple
organ part, but Willan does not leave
out some typical play with the bass.
Very different is O praise the Lord,
written for the Anglican Congress of
1963. This is perhaps the most complex
work on the CD - there are a wide variety
of textures, which are mirrored in the
workís construction, leading to a thrilling
Many of Willanís church
works were written for St. Mary Magdalene.
Prominent among these are the fourteen
settings of the Missa Brevis (no Credo)
that Willan wrote between 1928 and 1963.
These were written so as not to impede
the flow of the service and are not
only brief, but written for unison voices
and with individual sections bound to
each other by simple motifs. The Missa
Brevis No. XI (Mass of St. John the
Baptist) is the most complex of the
fourteen, but contains the same basic
features as the rest. The Elora Festival
Singers are well suited to this music.
One hates to use the term "angelic
voices" but in the Sanctus
and the Benedictus this term
really applies to their performance.
The acoustic at St. Johnís in Elora
adds to the performance, almost as if
Willan had known the church when writing
this piece. It may be said that the
key to performing Willanís church music
is to balance the mystical and the simple.
Noel Edison and the Festival Singers
get that precise balance in the first
three sections of this mass. The Agnus
Dei is somewhat more sophisticated
than the previous sections, but the
performers maintain the high level of
the earlier sections and in the final
statement of the Agnus Dei exceeds
what has come before.
With all of the masses
and anthems mentioned above we should
not think that Willan neglected the
motet as a form. Indeed he wrote more
of them than almost any other sacred
type. There are a number on this disc,
both liturgical and otherwise. Willan
saw the motet as a more intimate form
of religious expression than the anthem
and many of his motets are if not small
in feeling, brief and hushed in their
atmosphere. The earliest motet on this
disc is the O How Glorious of
1924. This was written when Willan had
settled in to his post at St. Mary Magdalene
and was seeking to give the words more
emphasis in the sacred music that he
wrote. This brief antiphon is beautifully
sung, especially by the ladies of the
Festival Chorus, who again are helped
by the acoustic of the church.
O how Glorious is
followed by three of the eleven Liturgical
Motets written mostly in the íthirties.
These works show the composerís increased
harmonic skill and the perfection of
the previously-mentioned balance between
simplicity and mystic awe. Among the
three are what is probably Willanís
best-known choral work, Rise up my
love, written in 1929, which is
indeed a masterpiece of simplicity and
reverence. Yet the other two motets
from the series recorded here: Preserve
us, O Lord and O King all Glorious
are both equally worthy of attention.
They demonstrate the same simple, almost
childlike sincerity combined with great
polyphonic ability and almost Russian
"choral orchestration" - Willan
was very fond of Russian church music
- but above all melodic ability. The
earlier How They Softly Rest shows
that even before his style had crystallized
Willan knew a great deal about how to
get the maximum sound from even the
smallest choir. This is also seen in
the remaining works on the disc.
Those who are familiar
with the above-mentioned Willan records
from Canadian EMI, especially the two
under Robert Hunter Bell in St. Mary
Magdalene itself will find the Elora
sound to be to be a lighter, fleeter
one than they are used to. St. Johnís
Church also reflects more of the sound
than St. Mary Magdalen, which produces
a less compelling effect. But the Elora
Festival Singers can match those at
St. Maryís in terms of their commitment
to the music and in the sense of reverence,
almost awe that they bring to many of
the works on this disc. Noel Edison
excels in the antiphonal and divided
parts of Willanís works, but all the
works receive the attention they deserve.
He is ably assisted by Mathew Larkin.
An additional plus about this disc are
the liner notes by Gavin Bryant, Willanís
successor at St. Mary Magdalene and
author of the Healey Willan Catalogue.
see also review
by Jonathan Woolf June