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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



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A New Heaven
Sir Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918)
I was glad [5:41]
Charles WOOD (1866-1928)
O Thou, the central orb [4:09]
Sir William Henry HARRIS (1883-1973)
Faire is the heaven [5:21]
Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Beati quorum via [3:34]
Sir Edward BAIRSTOW (1874-1946)
Blessed city, heavenly Salem* [9:05]
Sir Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY
Jerusalem [2:53]
Henry BALFOUR GARDINER (1877-1950) Evening Hymn [6:44]
Howard GOODALL (b. 1958)
The Lord is my shepherd* [3:18]
Edgar BAINTON (1880-1956)
And I saw a new heaven [5:14]
Sir Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY
My soul, there is a country [4:00]
Sir John STAINER (1840-1901)
I saw the Lord [7:13]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks* [6:33]
Charles WOOD
Hail, gladdening light [3:19]
John RUTTER (b. 1944)
The Lord is my shepherd [4:53]
Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano)*; Robert Quinney (organ); The Sixteen/Harry Christophers
rec. St Peter’s Italian Church, Clerkenwell, London, 10, 13 October 2008
UNIVERSAL 1795732 [72:06]

 

Experience Classicsonline


The majority of the pieces included in this collection date from what was surely a Golden Age of English church music, the period that ran, very roughly, from about 1890 to 1950. The programme comprises some of the jewels of the repertoire of all English cathedral choirs and while most of them have appeared in countless collections before one is glad to encounter them again like old familiar friends, and to admire them as prime examples of the genre.

Rightly, Parry and Stanford find their place here – though Stanford’s representation by a single piece seems a trifle meagre. However, his wonderful Beati quorum via receives a lovely performance, the seraphic lines spun beautifully by the choir, who sing with effortless legato and great purity of tone. Parry’s I was glad opens the recital majestically. I don’t know how many singers were involved – twenty-six names are listed in the booklet, though not all appear in every item. I suspect most were pressed into service for this piece for the choral sound is rich and full. Parry’s more intimate vein is shown in My soul, there is a country, the first of his Songs of Farewell and The Sixteen give a subtle, refined account of it.

Refinement is also the keynote of the rendition of the gorgeous Howells anthem, one of his loveliest creations. This is quintessential Howells, the harmonies full of gentle ecstasy, and the enviable long melody with which it opens is meat and drink to the male singers here.

In a quite different vein is Balfour Gardiner’s magnificent Evening Hymn. The outer sections are thrilling and very grand while the more reflective central section is done with finesse. However, whilst I don’t wish to seem ungrateful I just found a thought developing at the back of my mind that the performance, for all its great skill and assurance, was perhaps just a bit too easily achieved by an expert group of professional singers. Just to test my suspicion I put on the recording by St Paul’s Cathedral Choir under John Scott (The English Anthem – Vol 1 Hyperion CDA66374) and there was the sense of frisson that is not quite there in this new recording, excellent though it is. In the St Paul’s account you feel the singers are giving their all, almost straining at the leash, and the cutting edge of the trebles adds an extra tingle factor.

From the power of Gardiner’s piece one retreats, as it were to the rarefied atmosphere of Harris’s great masterpiece, Faire is the heaven. For years my favourite recording of this glorious piece has been the one by John Rutter and the Cambridge Singers (COLCD 107 or COLCD 302). This new one is a very serious rival indeed. Harris’s luminous vision of the celestial spaces is raptly presented by Christophers and his choir. The separation of the double choir is well managed and the performance seems to be bathed in a gentle golden light. This is one of the highlights of the disc.

Mention of John Rutter reminds me that he is one of two living composers represented here and, coincidentally, both are represented by a setting of the same text, Psalm 23. Rutter’s setting, later incorporated into his Requiem, though it retains its identity as a separate anthem, benefits from the composer’s felicitous melodic gift. His is a memorable, gently eloquent setting that sits comfortably beside the fine pieces already mentioned. I wish I could say the same for Howard Goodall’s piece but, sadly, its juxtaposition next to the pieces by, say, Stanford or Charles Wood, show that it is shallow by comparison. The melody is, frankly, trite and the accompaniment is simplistic and adds little to the piece where, by contrast, Rutter’s setting features an interesting accompaniment and greater harmonic invention. I felt also that the sheer sophistication of the performance was more than Goodall’s music could take, whereas Rutter – and the other composers – benefit from this degree of polish.

But the Goodall piece and possibly the Stainer, which sounds rather conventional and foursquare, were the only two offerings that didn’t fully engage my interest and sympathies in this recital. As I’ve indicated already, the singing of The Sixteen is superb. The tone and balance are quite splendid and you’ll go a long way to find better performances of this repertoire. Many of the pieces feature organ accompaniment and Robert Quinney makes a magnificent contribution. He plays an instrument originally built by Charles Anneessens in 1886, which was restored in 1959 and again in 1995. It sounds very well indeed here, whether in full majestic cry, as in I was glad, for example, or providing a subtle, reflective backdrop to the Howells. The engineers have captured the instrument expertly and they have been equally successful in recording the choir, both on its own and in combination with the organ.

The documentation is somewhat disappointing. The notes are serviceable but no texts are supplied.

There are many such anthologies on the market but this excellent one makes a strong claim for the attention of collectors.

John Quinn

see also Review by Michael Cookson


 


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