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Healey WILLAN (1880–1968)
In the heavenly kingdom (1924) [8.45]
Hymn – St. Osmund (1927) [3.20]
Sun of Righteousness [3.22]
How they so softly rest (1917) [3.48]
Hymn – Anthem on “Ye watchers and ye holy ones” [4.35]
Missa Brevis no. XI “Missa Sancti Johannis Baptistae” [7.10]
I looked, and behold a white cloud (1907) [7.16] (1)
Preserve us, O Lord (1928 –1937) [1.44]
O King all glorious (1928 – 1937) [2.44]
Hymn – Anthem on “Picardy” [5.06]
Christ hath a garden (1940) [3.33]
Hymn – Anthem on “O quanta qualia” [8.45]
O how glorious (1924) [1.35]
O praise the Lord (1963) [7.50]
Rise up, my love, my fair one (1928 –1937)  [8.45]
Joseph Schnurr (tenor) (1)
Matthew Larkin (organ)
Elora Festival Singers/Noel Edison
rec. 19-21 November 2004, St. John’s Church, Elora, Canada
NAXOS 8.557734 [67.07]

Healey Willan was born in England and trained privately as an organist, going to hold a number of posts England before immigrating to Canada in 1913. There he was appointed Organist and Choirmaster at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Toronto. In 1921 he moved to the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Toronto. Though the church was smaller, Willan was given a free hand with the music and had influence on the shape of the liturgy. The result was an Anglo-Catholic style of service music. Willan was associated with the church until his death.
Willan was a prolific composer, writing nearly 800 surviving pieces. Though his music includes symphonies, concertos and chamber music, it is with the human voice that his is primarily associated. This new disc from the Canadian group, the Elora Festival Singers, includes a wide selection of his choral music.
The disc opens with In the Heavenly Kingdom, a grand, expansive piece with a big organ part. Though the piece was written in 1924, it was left unfinished and completed in 1979 by F.C. Clarke. The scale of the piece is representative of Willan’s work from the early part of his time in Canada and is redolent of large scale English influences such as Parry or Stanford. Stanford and Parry are also evident in one of his English church works, I looked and behold a white cloud which dates from 1907. This early style is still evident in How they so softly rest from 1917, though by the end we get hints of the widely spaced block harmony of Russian Choral music.
Willan’s style seriously changed once he had moved to St. Mary Magdalene. He no longer strained after grand effects; intimacy and brevity are paramount and the music is usually unaccompanied. O How Glorious (from Six Motets of 1924) is a worthy essay in translating Palestrina’s counterpoint into 20th century terms, but as a motet it comes into the useful category rather than memorable.
His later exercises in this genre, such as Preserve us, O Lord, O King glorious and Rise up my Love from his Eleven Liturgical Motets (1928 – 1937) display a far more confident handling in this area. But here we reach a certain limitation in the performances. The choir, The Elora Festival Singers, are a professional group based in Toronto. They make a fine, clean sound that works fine in such pieces as In the Heavenly Kingdom where shape and clarity are paramount. In Sun of Rightousness, which Willan wrote in the 1940s as a concert piece for professional choir, the accuracy and clarity of the choir mean that the high, transparent textures of the piece come over magically.
But in these motets written for St. Mary Magdalene, what I wanted was more intensity, more feeling, a sense that the music was being performed by a choir for whom the mass meant something. Though I admired Willan’s music, I was left feeling something was lacking; I would love to hear these pieces sung by the choir of Westminster Cathedral.
Willan’s Missa Brevis included on this disc was one of fourteen Missa Brevises that he wrote. This work is the most complicated work of the 14, using two soprano lines and divisi in other parts. It sounds the sort of attractive work which would be useful to many choirs. But, as with the motets, the choir’s performance seems a little to clean and lacking in fervour or intensity.
Christ hath a Garden (1940) is another piece written for outside St. Mary Magdalene, but this time for a modest parish church choir. O Praise the Lord (1963) saw Willan revisiting his grand style for the Anglican Congress held in Toronto that year.
The choir also include a number of Healey Willan’s hymns. His most popular tune, St. Osmund, is sung straight but the others are sung in arrangements (Hymn Anthems) produced by Willan. These Hymn Anthems generally consist of a straightforward presentation of the tune, some verses in a variety of scorings and then a final, grandly harmonised verse. These hymns are useful as a testament to Willan’s talent but I am not sure that the arrangements are interesting enough to stand in their own right. But then, I’m not very fond of hymns sung by choirs on disc.
I wish that I could be more enthusiastic about this disc. Noel Edison and his choir give a fine musical performance of this music, good as far as it goes but I wanted far more. I never really did get that sense of mysticism and quiet awe that Giles Bryant, in his liner notes, says that Willan brought to the best of his sacred music. But then again, Willan’s music is not well represented in the current catalogue and the Elora Festival Singers do enable us to listen to his music in clean, shapely, musical performances.
Robert Hugill

see also reviews by Jonathan Woolf (June BARGAIN OF THE MONTH) and William Kreindler


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