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Healey Willan (1880-1968)
In the Heavenly Kingdom: Hymns, Anthems and Motets

In the Heavenly Kingdom B 380 (1924-1979) [8:45]
Hymn - St. Osmund B 449 (1927) [3:20]
Sun of Righteousness B 438 (1952) [3:22]
How They Softly Rest B 302 (1917) [3:48]
Hymn- Anthem on "Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones" B 403 (1968) [4:35]
Missa Brevis No. XI (Missa Sancti Johannis Baptistae) B 226 (1953) [7:10]
I Looked and Behold a White Cloud B 344 (1907) [7:16]
Preserve Us, O Lord B 310 (1928) [1:44]
O King All Glorious B 311 (1928) [2:44]
Hymn-Anthem on "Picardy" B 405 (1961) [5:06]
Christ hath a Garden B 352 (1961) [3:33]
Hymn-Anthem on "O Quanta Qualia" B 394 (1958) [3:52]
O How Glorious B 304 (1924) [1:35]
O Praise the Lord O Praise the Lord B 377 (1963) [7:50]
Rise Up, my Love, My Fair One B 314 (1929) [2:26]
Matthew Larkin (organ)
Joseph Schnurr (tenor)
The Elora Festival Singers/Noel Edison
rec. St. Johnís Church, Elora, Ontario, 19-21 November 2004, DDD
NAXOS 8.557734 [67:07]

 

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 finale.

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.

William Kreindler

see also review by Jonathan Woolf June BARGAIN OF THE MONTH


 



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