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Sir Edward BAIRSTOW (1874-1946)
Jesu, the very thought of thee (1925) [2:37]
Blessed city, heavenly Salem* [8:11]
Evening Service in D (1906)* [8:20]: Magnificat [4:53] Nunc dimittis [3:22]
Lord, thou hast been our refuge (1916)* [7:59]
If the Lord had not helped me (1910?)* [6:20]
Let all mortal flesh keep silence (1906) [3:15]
Evening Service in G (1940)* [5:54]: Magnificat [3:38] Nunc dimittis [2:11]
Five Poems of the Spirit (1944)** [14:02]
Save us, O Lord (1900)* [5:12]
Paul Provost (organ)*, Roderick Williams (baritone)**
Britten Sinfonia**
Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge/David Hill
rec. 13-14 January 2007, St. John’s College Chapel, Cambridge. DDD
English texts included
HYPERION CDA67497 [62:47]

Sir Edward Bairstow was appointed organist and Master of the Music of York Minster in 1913 and remained there until his death. From 1929 he combined the post with the Chair of Music at Durham University. Prior to his arrival at York he had been successively organist and choirmaster firstly of Wigan Parish Church (1899-1906) and then of Leeds Parish Church (1906-1913). Today he is largely remembered for his church and organ music and this new CD offers a good selection from his ecclesiastical output together with one work, Five Poems of the Spirit, which is really a concert work, though the texts that Bairstow uses in it are definitely spiritual in nature.
Some of the anthems that David Hill has selected are pretty familiar, especially Blessed city, heavenly Salem and Let all mortal flesh keep silence. It might have been expected that the former, a confident, outgoing piece in many ways, would start this programme off. However, in a thoughtful piece of programme planning, it’s actually Jesu, the very thought of thee that we hear first. That’s an excellent decision on someone’s part for this gently devotional setting serves perfectly as a meditative introit, after which Blessed city, heavenly Salem is perfectly placed. Similarly the recital closes with the Compline antiphon Save us, O Lord. Though that has a relatively vigorous short fugal section in the middle it’s also primarily a contemplative setting and, as such, it makes a suitably serene end to the disc.
All the anthems here are very well worthwhile listening. Without exception they are expertly crafted and show a discriminating ability on Bairstow’s part to respond to texts. More than that, in a piece such as If the Lord had not helped me Bairstow’s selection of verses from the Psalms brings with it several changes of mood and his music unerringly reflects these different moods. Also, as will be seen from the composition dates in the track listing, the choice of pieces is good in that it gives the listener a flavour of Bairstow’s output and style at different stages in his career. One thing that is unchanging, it seems to me, is a sure sense of faith, which underpins the music.
The two sets of evening canticles are well chosen for contrast. The earlier set, in D major, is the more outgoing and confident in tone, especially in the Magnificat, which concludes with a majestically affirmative doxology. The companion Nunc dimittis radiates calm assurance and rises to a warm climax at “To be a light to lighten the gentiles.” Interestingly this setting has a different doxology to the Magnificat and incorporates a fugue on “As it was in the beginning.” The G major canticles represent a stated intention on Bairstow’s part to write a set of canticles that were essentially prayerful and contemplative in nature. In this he succeeded, though his ambition did not prevent him from expressing confidence in the doxology.
Perhaps of greatest interest, because least familiar, is Five Poems of the Spirit. Though not claimed as such by Hyperion, this may well be the first recording of this work. The work comes from the end of Bairstow’s life and, indeed, the last three of the pieces were orchestrated after his death by Sir Ernest Bullock. It was Bullock who arranged for the publication of Five Poems in 1954. In the process he discarded a sixth setting on the grounds that the text, The Veteran of Heaven by Francis Thompson, did not sit well with the other poems, all of which were by sixteenth- or seventeenth-century English poets.
The work is a good one, I think, and I’m glad that it’s been recorded for it deserves wider currency. And what luxury to have a soloist of the calibre of Roderick Williams! He sings splendidly throughout – though he’s not involved in the third Poem, which is for chorus alone. Particularly satisfying are the last two movements. ‘Purse and Scrip, a poem by Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618), is a noble setting, mainly for the baritone, with the chorus joining in near the end. The music has a dignified eloquence, a description that applies equally to the singing of Roderick Williams. That’s followed by ‘L’Envoy’, a stanza by George Herbert (1593-1633). This is a lovely, serene piece of music that fades away to nothing.  Five Poems of the Spirit has a gentle eloquence that I find most affecting and I’m delighted that it’s been recorded.
The whole standard of this disc is excellent. The choir sings splendidly throughout and the organ accompaniments by Paul Provost enhance the proceedings significantly. David Hill has evidently trained the choir superbly – one would expect nothing less. In the Five Poems the Britten Sinfonia play very responsively. The performances have been well recorded in the resonant acoustic of St. John’s Chapel. The disc is accompanied by good notes by the current occupant of Bairstow’s old post at York Minster, Philip Moore.
Unless there is something else “in the can”, this presumably will be the last CD from the surprisingly short-lived partnership of David Hill and the St. John’s Choir. I’ve heard and greatly enjoyed all of the previous ones, except for their Mendelssohn disc, which has not come my way. I’m happy to confirm that this latest release is fully up to the standards we have come to expect from Hill and his choir. If this is to be the last disc by David Hill and the St. John’s choir then the partnership has ended on a high note and Bairstow has been well served.
John Quinn


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