Sir William Henry
Harris is best known for his Faire is the Heaven, one
of the foremost of 20th century anthems and also
for his Bring us, O Lord God and Strengthen ye the
weak hands. There are also numerous other choral and
Sir William served
in a number of posts before settling in 1933 at St. George’s
Chapel, Windsor where he was in charge for almost three decades.
This disc is the latest in the Naxos English Choral Music
series and was recorded at St. George’s Chapel with the
present Director, Timothy Byram-Wigfield, and the estimable
Roger Judd as organist.
In addition to the
three well-known works mentioned above this disc includes six
of the lesser-known ones and three others which have never been
recorded. The first of these, The Shepherd-Men
is a simple carol and proves that the composer - known to his
choristers as Doc H - is quite a change from the eight-part
complicated works with which “Doc H” is associated. The text
of I said to the man is remembered for its use by George
VI in his 1939 Christmas broadcast. Harris sets the text in
an unusual, awkward style that at first seems inappropriate
to the poem but shows the composer in his late-eighties still
experimenting. Also unusual for Harris is his setting of Swinburne’s
From a Heart Made Whole, which seems never to settle
into its home-key of G-major or any other. While I found all
of these works interesting their first appearance on disc may
owe something to the fact that none of them is typical Harris.
Of the other, better-known
pieces, the best performances are towards the end of the disc.
The torturous and rather strange From a heart made whole
is given an extremely convincing performance, as is the famous
Bring us, O Lord God. Here the middle voices sing with
total control and beautiful blend. Byram-Wigfield leads the
choir to an intense coda in the latter that is the highpoint
of the disc. The Greek Orthodox inspired O joyful light is
sung a little slowly for my taste, but the overall conception
is imaginative. Unfortunately the acoustic breaks up right before
the end. This happens with two or three other pieces as well.
Another problem is that the conductor takes O hearken thou
and Strengthen ye the weak hands at a rather plodding
pace which makes for stateliness but not excitement. Better
led are King of glory, which evolves beautifully and
Love of Love, with a well-performed end.
Overall this is a
successful disc, though with the conducting caveats mentioned
above. While there are many recordings of individual Harris anthems,
the only competition for a complete Harris disc is that of the
Exon Singers on ASV 1015 from 1997. About half the anthems on
the Naxos disc are replicated here, although obviously none of
the first time recordings. The Exon Singers disc also has several
of Harris’s best organ works and the acoustic of the Tonbridge
School Chapel is less intrusive than that prevailing in St. George’s
Chapel. On the other hand the Naxos disc features the choir and
location for which these pieces were written and is sung more
idiomatically, if less excitingly than by Exon. In addition it
has the imaginative and fluent playing of Roger Judd, long-time
soloist of Saint George’s Chapel and a powerful musical entity
in his own right. So, to recommend a single Harris disc is difficult.
It is probably best to get both.
see also Review
by Robert Hugill