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Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988)
Sequence for All Saints, Op. 75 (1978) [24:26]
Chorale Prelude: Rockingham for organ solo (1975) [2:56]
O God, enfold me in the sun (1967) [3:48]
Morning Canticles (1967) [15:04] (Venite [3:32]; Te Deum laudamus [7:35]; Jubilate Deo [3:41])
The World’s Desire. A Sequence for Epiphany, Op. 91 (1984) [29:50]
Wells Cathedral Choir, Wells Cathedral School Chapel Choir/David Bednall (organ)/Matthew Owens
rec. The Cathedral Church of St. Andrew in Wells, Somerset, England. 19-22 June 2007 DDD
English texts included
HYPERION CDA67641 [76:23]
Experience Classicsonline

Though he was not a conventional, church-going believer, religious music was important to Kenneth Leighton and he composed some significant pieces of church music, as this CD makes abundantly clear. His experiences, in his formative years, as a chorister at Wakefield Cathedral stayed with him throughout his life, as Andrew Burn points out in his exemplary booklet note. In fact, there’s a direct Wakefield connection with one of the works included in this present programme.
 
All the music chosen by Matthew Owens for this disc makes a strong impression. For example, O God, enfold me in the sun, is a piece in which, as Burn says, “the music bounds along pulsing with light in response to the poet’s images.” This work, written for a church in York, sets a text by Jacqueline Froom. It’s a short piece but an impressive creation nonetheless and both the Wells choir and organist David Bednall give it a performance of great energy and sweep.
 
From the same year comes the set of Morning Canticles. The Venite is a splendid piece. The music of the opening pages strides along with purpose and confidence. This is celebratory and exciting music and in this performance it’s put across with impressive fervour. Leighton builds up to a majestic climax at the words “Today, if ye will hear his voice, ye shall know his power” and then rounds off the piece with a thrilling, affirmative doxology. Stirring stuff indeed.  By contrast, the Te Deum opens quietly but the tempo soon picks up and with it the fervour of the music increases. There’s a memorable, lyrical melody at “We therefore pray thee, help thy servants” which Leighton uses to build inexorably to a swelling, grand climax at “O Lord, in thee have I trusted.” This fine set of canticles is completed by a setting of the Jubilate. As befits the text, the music is extrovert and joyful though Leighton opts to end with a quieter, reflective doxology, which is all the more effective for being somewhat unexpected.
 
Leighton, it seems, had a lifelong fascination with hymns and this musical trait comes out in the remaining works on the disc. His Chorale Prelude: Rockingham is a meditative little gem on the tune to “When I survey the wondrous cross.” The well-known melody is seemingly ever present yet never dominates. The piece is sensitively played by David Bednall.
 
At either end of the programme are placed substantial works, each of which makes telling use of a hymn tune. Sequence for All Saints is the piece with the Wakefield connection to which I referred earlier. It was commissioned for the West Riding Cathedral Festival, a festival that brought together the cathedral choirs from Bradford, Sheffield and Wakefield. Fittingly, the première was given in Wakefield Cathedral. The work is in five sections, all separately tracked here, and sets words from the medieval plainsong Sequence for the feast of All Saints, as given in the English Hymnal.
 
Leighton’s setting is at times exciting and at other times beautiful. What he does do throughout the piece is to provide music that’s entirely apposite to the words. The organ is an important protagonist in the piece and David Bednall’s contribution is superb. The work begins in hushed tones, the choir singing “Gaudeamus”, but before long their music becomes more intense and after a short, but important organ solo an ecstatic paean of choral praise erupts. Interestingly, however, the music dies away a little unexpectedly at the words “and glorify the Son of God” – one might have expected loud music for these words but Leighton knows what he’s doing.
 
The second section begins with an expressive baritone solo, interspersed with seraphic “alleluia” interjections from the trebles. As the full choir takes up the argument the textures become even richer and the music grows in intensity. The third section features what Andrew Burn rightly describes as a “serene” melody for unison trebles. Here Leighton conveys a marvellous sense of space and of wonder before the majesty of God. It’s an impressive movement. For me the fourth section is at the heart of the whole composition. It begins with an organ solo, which is pregnant with hushed anticipation and meditation; one can almost smell the incense. The solo baritone, the excellent Stephen Foulkes, sings those marvellously consoling phrases, beginning: “The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God.”  Leighton’s music at this point is profound and full of mystery. The unaccompanied choir takes over at 4:25. From hushed beginnings Leighton builds a short but remarkably effective climax after which the choir’s music retreats to a wonderful quiet final cadence. The last word in this superb movement is given to the organ.
 
The finale opens with the same quiet music – “Gaudeamus” - that we heard at the beginning. There follows a lively, syncopated outpouring of praise – this is a real choral dance of joy. Then (at 2:35) comes a masterstroke. We hear the first verse of Isaac Watts’ fine hymn “Give me the wings of faith”, decorated by ecstatic alleluias. Immediately a series of majestic organ chords presage the hymn in all its splendour. It’s a marvellous, genuinely moving moment as Watts’ triumphant, broad hymn tune rings out, the cathedral choir reinforced by the members of Wells Cathedral School Chapel Choir. Leighton’s use of the hymn is an inspired borrowing from the past – how often did he sing the hymn as a chorister at Wakefield, I wonder? There’s nothing fancy about the treatment of the tune. Instead, we are reminded how thrilling it can be to hear unison voices singing a noble melody. The organ part underneath the voices reinforces and embellishes the melody quite splendidly. I was a little surprised that Leighton doesn’t round off the work with a final “Amen” but no matter. This Sequence is a very fine work indeed and it receives a first class performance.
 
The World’s Desire brings together in a very interesting way the different slants on the Feast of the Epiphany that are to be found in the Western Christian and Eastern Orthodox liturgies. Once again Leighton employs a fine and well-known hymn. In this case he uses Bishop Reginald Heber’s  “Brightest and best of the sons of the morning”, using the tune ‘Was lebet, was schwebet’ – some may associate that melody, as do I, even more with another great Epiphany hymn, “O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” but it fits either hymn text very well.
 
The work is in two parts and five sections – again, each is separately tracked. One important difference between this work and the Sequence is the inclusion of narrative about the Epiphany story, especially the visit of the Magi to King Herod. This narration, in the first and fourth sections, is shared between the choir and two soloists from within the choir, a tenor (Ian Milne) and a baritone (Christopher Sheldrake). Leighton’s music for these narrative sections is very dramatic. It sounds to me if Christopher Sheldrake just tries a little too hard and, as a result, he gives the impression of forcing his tone a little, which is a pity. Towards the end of Section I the tenor has an impassioned passage of narration (“When they had heard the king, they went their way”). It is at this point that Leighton introduces the first line of the hymn. The choir meditates on this against the soloist’s music. It’s an imaginative device, well executed here.
 
The second section consists chiefly of what Andrew Burn calls an “ardent unaccompanied carol.” This is a setting for the choir of words by Richard Crashaw (1613-1649) It’s a very arresting piece, containing some marvellously intense harmonic language and it would make a fine anthem in its own right. The second verse of the hymn is tacked onto this and then the choir and congregation (in this case the Cathedral School Chapel Choir) sing the first three verses of the hymn in unison, with organ accompaniment, to conclude Part I.
 
Part II opens with a raptly beautiful setting for unaccompanied choir of verses by G K Chesterton (“The Christ-child lay on Mary’s lap”). The last verse of this is ravishing with a solo soprano – the excellent, pure-voiced Léonie Maxwell – soaring ethereally above the choir. The next section, Section IV of the work, contains more narration by the two male soloists against a potent organ accompaniment. The tenor solo is particularly ardent. At the end of this section we hear the choir, divided into seven parts, in splendidly mystical music.
 
The concluding section brings East and West together in the shape of words from the Liturgy of the Feast of Theophany, which links the Epiphany to Christ’s baptism in the River Jordan, and the remainder of Heber’s hymn. First, the choir sings words from the Eastern Orthodox liturgy and Leighton builds up both textures and tension masterfully, achieving a thrilling climax on the last line, “Thou art my beloved son, with thee I am well pleased.” The organ leads back to a reprise of the third verse of the hymn, which is sung slowly, almost as a backdrop to the organ part. Then we hear more from the Orthodox text - an exultant, frequently unaccompanied setting of words beginning “Today the grace of the spirit in the form of a dove descended on the waters”. The music now has immense power, culminating in the last two verses of Heber’s hymn, the second of which is decorated by exuberant carolling in descant by the trebles and altos. The whole piece is performed with burning conviction and it rounds of the programme splendidly.
 
This is a superb disc. Though I know some of Kenneth Leighton’s church music all the pieces included here were new to me and they make a strong impression. That is due not just to the high quality of the music but also to the tremendous performances that Matthew Owens and his Wells forces provide. In the past there have been some fine recordings of Leighton’s church music, not least the excellent Naxos CD from St John’s College, Cambridge (see review). However, this new disc serves his music in a quite exemplary fashion. In addition to the excellent performances this Hyperion package offers first class sound and a most interesting and readable set of notes by Andrew Burn. Hyperion and the Wells musicians have done Kenneth Leighton proud.
 
John Quinn
 

 


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