I’ve previously heard several pieces by Gabriel Jackson,
all of them choral, and have been impressed by them. They have
included the canticles from his Tewkesbury Service
and, more recently, the remarkable Sanctum est verum lumen
However, so far as I know, these are the first discs devoted exclusively to his
The Delphian disc is not a new release. It first appeared about three years ago,
when it was reviewed
my colleague, Dominy Clements. The re-release of the CD coincides with the announcement
of Gabriel Jackson’s appointment as the next Associate Composer to the
BBC Singers in succession to Judith Bingham, starting in 2010. Since this recording
was issued Matthew Owens has moved on to Wells Cathedral, where he is now organist
and doing some fine work to judge by CDs of music by Geoffrey Burgon (see review
and Kenneth Leighton (see review
As for Polyphony and Stephen Layton, this is the latest in their splendid series
of Hyperion releases that focus on twentieth century composers such as Morten
Lauridsen (see review
Pavel Lukaszewski (see review
and James MacMillan (see review
It might be thought unfortunate that the Delphian re-release coincides with the
arrival of the new Hyperion disc. However, as a glance at the track-listings
will show, there’s virtually no overlap between the two programmes, with
only two items, O Sacrum Convivium
and the first setting of Salve
being common to both discs. In fact, almost all the pieces on the
both CDs are receiving their first recordings. In several ways the discs complement
each other very nicely.
collection has more structure to it because the programme
has been constructed around Anglican services. Thus we hear the Edinburgh
, a four movement Missa Brevis, with O Sacrum Convivium
tacked on as a Communion motet. Two carol settings follow and then the remainder
of the programme is designed as a Jackson Evensong, even to the extent of including
Preces and Responses, written by Jackson to a commission from St Mary’s
Cathedral. All this seems to me to be a very sensible and interesting piece of
programme planning, designed to celebrate the close association that Jackson
enjoyed with the cathedral for four years at the beginning of the present decade.
The Edinburgh choir as recorded here comprises four each of tenors and male altos,
six basses, and seventeen choristers, who are a mix of boys and girls. In the
booklet Jackson describes the personality of the choir in these words: “exuberant,
fiercely intelligent, yet also possessed of a rare numinousness and intimacy.”
Matthew Greenall, in his very useful booklet notes, writes of the “pared
down, almost terse nature” of the Edinburgh Mass
. I think he’s
right to draw parallels with settings by Poulenc, Stravinsky and Pärt. Apparently,
in commissioning it, the Provost of Edinburgh Cathedral asked Jackson for “a
sensible Mass”. I think Jackson fulfilled that stipulation for his Mass
is practical and seems ideally suited for liturgical use - this is not a concert
work. But I’d go further and say that he’s also written a sensitive
Mass, one which I judge to be a most welcome addition to the repertoire. I particularly
like the Sanctus, where Jackson builds up the choral texture from four voices
to ten and then to full choir. The Benedictus features a haunting alto solo and
the Agnus Dei is a piercing plea for mercy that eventually resolves into a warm,
pacific Dona Nobis Pacem. The setting of O Sacrum Convivium
makes a fine
appendix to the Mass. Much of the music is hushed and devotional in tone and
Jackson establishes a timeless, meditative mood. The Edinburgh choir produces
some fine sustained singing. Polyphony
is, of course, comprised of adult
professional singers and on their CD their impeccable blending results in an
even smoother performance, though the edge of the Edinburgh trebles is very persuasive.
It’s also noticeable that Polyphony, with a slightly larger bass section
of eight singers, endow the music with a more sonorous bass line.
The Edinburgh Evensong opens with the Latin setting of the famous Prayer of
King Henry VI
, which makes an effective introit. The psalm setting
is by no means the conventional Anglican chant. Jackson’s setting of Psalm
112 is an exuberant, virtuoso piece for solo soprano and organ. The guest soloist
is Susan Hamilton, the co-founder of the Dunedin Consort. She appears as the
soprano soloist on the Consort’s acclaimed
. I must confess that on that admirable recording I found the
tone of her voice a trifle plain but perhaps that was by design. Here the tone
is rounder yet none of the agility that must be an essential to success in this
piece is sacrificed. The work sounds to be hugely demanding to sing - though
Miss Hamilton makes light of the difficulties - but also very rewarding. For
the listener it’s exciting and enjoyable. The organ part, splendidly played
here, is likewise a tour de force
and the inventive organ part complements
and enhances the vocal line. Though the prevailing mood is joyful and extrovert
there are a couple of very effective slower sections, which provide welcome contrast.
In contrast to the florid psalm, the ‘Mag and Nunc’ settings are
simple and unaccompanied. Here Jackson gives a twenty-first century slant on alternatim
There’s a surprising - and effective - key change for the doxology in both
canticles. Towards the end of this Evensong Salve regina
is sung as the
anthem, the choice emphasising a Marian sub-theme in this Edinburgh programme.
It’s a beautiful setting, which is included on both CDs and my comparative
comments about O Sacrum Convivium
apply here also.
As the concluding voluntary we hear St Asaph Toccata
, which despite its
title was written for Symphony Hall, Birmingham. This is a tremendous piece,
played with real panache by Michael Bonaventure. At the start one is kept waiting
- and waiting - for the entry of the pedals under the manual figurations. You
know it’s coming but Jackson cunningly delays the moment until 1:10 and
when the pedals finally thunder it’s worth the wait. The piece has many
exciting passages but actually what impresses me just as much is the range of
sonorities that composer and organist conjure up in quieter passages. Overall
the piece has a strong rhythmic impulse and is very exciting. I was a little
disappointed by the ending, which was not what I expected - but at least Jackson
is original. I won’t spoil the surprise for anyone new to the piece. The
toccata crowns a very enjoyable and satisfying disc.
programme doesn’t have the structure of its Delphian
rival. It’s a more conventional anthology disc but none the worse for that.
Anyone who has heard recordings by Stephen Layton’s excellent choir will
know what to expect in terms of identification with the music, splendid professionalism
and faultless technique - and they won’t be disappointed. The singing throughout
this recital is of the very highest order. Furthermore, Stephen Layton has chosen
some very interesting and expertly crafted pieces, all but one of them unaccompanied.
Among items that caught my ear particularly, Song (I gaze upon you)
a setting of verses by the French poet, Paul Élouard, in an English translation.
This is a wedding anthem and the music is harmonised with an appropriate sensuousness.
I found that the setting adds a new dimension to the words, which is just as
it should be. Cecilia Virgo
is a hymn to St. Cecilia. Appropriately, this
celebration of the patron saint of music becomes a celebration of vocal textures.
The music is elaborate in the way that Tudor polyphony - a frequent source of
inspiration for Gabriel Jackson - is elaborate. I found it to be a most effective
is a prayerful offering, featuring long, flowing vocal lines
although there’s strong supplication at the words “Sancta Maria,
mater Dei”. The ending is very beautiful as a pair of solo sopranos soar
gently above slow, quiet block chords.
The piece, which gives the CD its title - dare I say a rather clumsy, ungrammatical
title? - is a setting of lines by a teenage poet on the subject of bereavement.
There are important parts for a solo cello and a solo flute. The choral writing
includes some very interesting harmonies and the use of the two instruments,
as well as passages featuring vocal soloists or small consorts set against the
main choir, provides consistently interesting textures. The plaintive cello holds
sway for the first three stanzas of text. It’s only when we reach the fourth
stanza, which is more consolatory in tone, that Jackson introduces the flute
and at this point the music becomes more warm and optimistic to match the words.
Jackson wrote a setting of Salve Regina
in 2000. Four years later he returned
to the text and set it again. However, this time the piece was on a much more
expansive scale, not least because he interpolated three extracts from medieval
English poems. The result is a much more complex piece, both rhythmically and
harmonically. While the earlier work is by no means put in the shade its successor
is even richer. Polyphony perform both pieces marvellously.
Time to sum up. Both these discs are extremely well presented. The recorded sound
for both choirs is very good indeed and both discs come with well laid out booklets
including informative and interesting notes. Polyphony offer the more refined
singing, as you’d expect from a choir of adult professional singers. The
Edinburgh choir can’t quite match that sustained level of excellence but
they still do very well indeed and they offer the genuine cathedral sound that
Gabriel Jackson must have had in mind when he wrote most, if not all the music
offered by Delphian. Both CDs give us a rewarding and revealing portrait of Gabriel
Jackson as choral composer.
To be honest it would be perverse to recommend one of these excellent discs in
preference to the other, not least because each is a very different proposition
to the other. Probably your choice will be determined by the repertoire and by
the type of choir you wish to hear. However, if on the flip of a coin you opt
for one of these discs I suspect it won’t be long before you’ll be
adding the other to your collection.
Clearly Gabriel Jackson is a significant voice in modern British choral writing.
I love his very evident respect and affection for the tradition in which he writes
and I admire greatly the way in which, on the evidence of these CDs, he builds
on that tradition and renews it. I hope now that it won’t be long before
we can have a recording of the a
, written for
and premièred just last year by the Vasari Singers. To judge by the extract
I’ve been able to hear that’s another fine work by a composer who
writes exceptionally sympathetically for voices.
see also review by
Dominy Clements (Delphian)