Sir Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918)
I was glad when they said unto me - Coronation Anthem (1902) [4:56]
The Great Service: Magnificat (1881) [8:05]
The Great Service: Nunc Dimittis (1881) [3:41]
Songs of Farewell (1916) [28:31]
Hear my word, ye people* (1894) [14:12]
Judith - Oratorio: Long since in Egypt's plenteous land (1888) [4:10]
Jerusalem (1916) [2:51]
Mark Rowlinson* (baritone); Jeffrey Makinson (organist)
Manchester Cathedral Choir/Christopher Stokes
rec. 2- 4 July 2008, Manchester Cathedral. DDD
NAXOS 8.572104 [66:25]
According to the list in the booklet, the Manchester Cathedral choir consists of fifteen trebles (eight of whom are girls), three male altos, three tenors and four basses. The size of the choir is a relevant consideration in evaluating this CD, as we shall see.
Their programme of Parry’s choral music includes some of his most celebrated pieces. They open with the 1902 Coronation anthem, I was glad, which comes over very well. I was particularly taken with the semi-chorus at “O pray for the peace of Jerusalem”. They sing this passage very well; indeed, as well as I can recall hearing it done. At the other end of the programme, perhaps inevitably, comes Jerusalem and, immediately before it, the chorus from the oratorio, Judith, which has achieved deserved renown as the tune for the hymn Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.
Another famous hymn crops up in the anthem, Hear my word, ye people. The culmination of this anthem is the hymn, O Praise ye the Lord. Mind you, we have to wait quite a while for this fine tune to make its appearance. The anthem itself was written to be performed by massed forces at the 1894 Festival of the Salisbury Diocesan Choral Association. Much of the piece is scored for semi chorus (or solo quartet) with the full choir joining in only when the hymn is reached. I imagine that the intention was that the main body of the anthem would have been sung by the more expert choirs of the Salisbury diocese with the village choirs adding their vocal weight in the less complicated final section. Here the Manchester singers perform the whole thing and they make a good job of it. There’s an important bass solo, beginning at “Clouds and darkness are round about Him”, and soloist Mark Rowlinson makes a very favourable impression. Later, there’s an extended passage, beginning at “He delivered the poor in his affliction”. In my copy that’s marked as a soprano solo but here it’s sung by unison trebles - not all of the trebles, I suspect - and these confident young singers do it very well. To be honest, I think the anthem is about five minutes too long for its material - I enjoy singing it more than listening to it - but it’s still well worth hearing and it’s done very effectively here.
The earlier set of Evening Canticles, written at the behest of Stanford for the choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, are sturdy and reliable and somewhat conservative in tone. The gentle Nunc dimittis is rather lovely. I don’t know if these canticles feature in the Manchester choir’s regular repertoire but they sing them well and with assurance.
The centrepiece of their programme is the Songs of Farewell. These six wonderful anthems for unaccompanied choir are among Parry’s finest vocal works, technically demanding and containing music that’s often not just eloquent but emotionally searching. As the set progresses they become increasingly testing for the singers and the number of vocal parts expands. The first two pieces are in four parts, then in each successive piece Parry adds a vocal line until the final piece, ‘Lord, let me know mine end’, which is luxuriantly laid out for two four-part choirs. I’m very sorry to have to report that, in my view, the scope of these pieces is a bit beyond the resources of the Manchester choir.
In saying this I don’t mean to suggest for a moment that they don’t sing well - that would be most unfair - though, following in the score I felt that on many occasions more could and should have been made of the dynamic contrasts that Parry writes in most scrupulously. No, the real problem is that the choir just isn’t big enough as Parry progressively requests larger vocal forces. So the first two pieces, ‘My soul, there is a country’ and ‘I know my soul hath power’, which are both written in four parts, come over quite well. However, in the third piece, the five-part ‘Never weather-beaten sail’ doubts begin to creep in. To my ears there simply isn’t enough variety of dynamics or expression and the choir lacks the necessary reserves of power to do full justice to Parry’s music. And in the last three pieces, where the parts multiply still further, there aren’t enough singers on the lower parts to achieve the requisite balance. Indeed, throughout the whole set the texture is too treble-dominated.
I deliberately didn’t listen to any comparative versions of the Songs of Farewell for the simple reason that all the recordings in my collection are by mixed adult choirs, so I felt I would be comparing apples and pears. Eventually, however, I did sample one alternative version to check that my judgements weren’t unduly harsh. The version I chose was by the Rodolfus Choir conducted by Ralph Allwood (Herald HAVPCD 217) and the reason for choosing this was that the singers in that choir are all young people. Allwood’s choir is clearly larger, though not hugely so, and much better balanced as a result. Crucially, the lower parts register much more and the dynamic markings are much more closely observed. As a result, Parry’s textures are far more accurately rendered. I also noticed that Allwood is much more spacious in his approach to the last two songs and the extra breadth he brings to the music is entirely appropriate.
I’m sorry that I can’t be more enthusiastic about this recording of the Songs of Farewell. They say that size isn’t everything but on this occasion it matters a great deal. If the Manchester Cathedral choir had had a couple more each of altos, tenors and basses in their ranks I’m sure the performance would have been more successful, to match the rest of the programme. As it is, if you’re buying this CD principally for the Songs of Farewell then I feel duty bound to suggest that there are better alternatives on the market. However, it’s only fair to point out that my colleague, John France, who knows a thing or two about English music, reacted very positively to this collection.
see also review by John France (August 2009 Bargain of the Month)
A useful programme of Parry’s choral music let down by an underweight account of the main work