This is a perfect introduction to the choral music of Charles Hubert Hastings Parry. The repertoire covers his three most popular choral works alongside three great works that are typically known to Parry enthusiasts and those who inhabit the organ loft or choir stalls: the two groups are not mutually exclusive. I did a little survey: I asked five people (not British Music fans) to name a piece of music by Parry. Only one was able to suggest Jerusalem, but added that it might have been by Elgar ... The other four, unsurprisingly, had heard of this great hymn, but the composer remained a blank spot.
The CD gets off to a great start with the anthem I was glad. It was originally written for the Coronation of Edward VII and was also performed at the Service for George VI and the present Queen. Manchester Cathedral Choir cope well with this powerful music and the organ is heard to impressive effect. As is traditional, the acclamations of 'Vivat Rex' or 'Regina' are omitted in this recording. One wonders if this anthem will be used at subsequent Coronations (long, long may that be in the future) or whether something more egalitarian and balanced towards 'world music' will be the order of the day?
The Great Service in D major is a fine piece of choral music that can be used in both a liturgical or concert setting. At nearly nine minutes the Magnificat may be a little long for St Swithun's Parish Church Evensong, but in Cathedrals this would be an acceptable length. Both parts of the Canticles reveal a confident composer who is totally at home in the world of Anglican Church music. The service was written in 1881 for Trinity College Cambridge, however it was not published until 1984. This is a great setting that is a million miles away from the popular view that Victorian church music was over-sentimental and stodgy.
The Songs of Farewell are quite simply stunning. This is a major work that explores feelings about the transience of life and involves much reflection by the composer back across the years of his musical achievement. Parry stated that, at seventy years of age, he had reached 'the last milestone.' It would be a project worthy of a dissertation or a thesis to explore the composer's religious sensibilities at this time in his life. He was not a conventionally Christian believer and would have seen the texts in a personal context rather than liturgical. Yet each of these motets is deeply moving and invariably inspiring.
I guess that many habitués of cathedral and parish churches will know the opening My Soul, there is a country - a fine setting of Henry Vaughan's fundamentally optimistic words. Yet the remaining five motets are less often performed and less well known. The composer provides considerable interest in these subsequent motets by use of varying number of parts and a fine balance of a fundamentally harmonic language over against more complex but never 'academic' contrapuntal workings.
Perhaps the mood of the entire collection is best summed up by the last motet Lord, let me know mine end. The last words of this psalm ask God to 'O spare me a little, that I may recover my strength before I go hence and be no more seen'. Hardly the thoughts of a confident evangelical who 'knew' that he was going to join the saints in glory but more those of a deep-seated agnostic.
For me the most beautiful work on this CD is Hear my words, ye people. It is a compendium of texts taken from the Old Testament books of Job, Isaiah and the Psalms. The work was originally composed for the 1894 Festival of the Salisbury Diocesan Choral Association. Unbelievably, it was conceived for 2000 singers with a semi-chorus of some 400! There was an organ accompaniment and brass band present the first performance. The choral music part was kept relatively simple, as there was little time for rehearsal. The more complex music was given to the soprano and baritone soloists. In this recording the baritone part is sung by Mark Rowlinson: the other solo parts are taken by groups of choristers. The work concludes with the well-known hymn O Praise ye the Lord, which was a paraphrase of Psalm 150 by Sir Henry Baker. Something tells me that this 'pared-down' version is actually more effective and satisfying than the original. It is a truly gorgeous work that ought to have a secure place in the repertoire.
The penultimate piece is from the oratorio Judith. Many folk will know the hymn-tune Repton, which accompanies the words Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, without realising the source of the text and the music. Judith was a highly successful oratorio, which was first performed in 1888. The words are from a poem entitled The Brewing of Soma by the American Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier. It is given here with great variety of dynamics and constant attention to the meaning of the words.
Jerusalem is the last piece on this CD. Naturally, it is in Parry's incarnation - with organ accompaniment rather than the gorgeous, but manifestly overblown Elgarian version. No matter how many times I hear this work I cannot help feeling that it is one of the finest hymns ever composed on Earth or in Heaven. For the record it was written during the Great War at the suggestion of Robert Bridges and Walford Davies for a 'Fight for Right' meeting at the Queen's Hall in London.
The quality of the recording is superb, the programmes notes by Keith Anderson are suitably informative and the texts of all the works are provided. The cover picture is entitled 'Beach Sunset' and presumably alludes to the 'Country beyond the Stars'. Yet it has a definite feel of Morecambe Bay about it.
The obvious comparison for this CD is the Hyperion recording of the Choir of St George's Chapel of Windsor conducted by Christopher Robinson. This was - and still is - an essential disc for all Parry enthusiasts and received excellent reviews. However, I have always had a soft spot for Manchester Cathedral: my father's family were from Lancashire and looked towards this great City for work, worship and pleasure. I first visited cathedral in the early seventies, and have enjoyed musical events and services there on an occasional basis over the years. This present recording is a fine monument to a great musical and ecclesiastical tradition. It will be an essential addition to many collections.