Regent Records are doing David Bednall proud. Hard on the heels of the recording of his very fine Requiem
, they have issued this new CD, which is the second volume of his choral music. Volume One, which I have not yet heard, was entitled Hail, gladdening light
That disc, which was also made by Matthew Owens and the Wells Cathedral Choir, included the four morning canticles from Bednall’s Wells Service
; the four companion canticles for Evensong form part of the present programme.
The ‘Magnificat’ and ‘Nunc dimittis’ are familiar pillars of the service of Evensong. It’s less common to hear settings of ‘Cantate Domino’ or ‘Deus misereatur’. One interesting feature of Bednall’s settings is that the latter two settings include an organ accompaniment while the ‘Mag’ and ‘Nunc’ are for unaccompanied choir. ‘Cantate Domino’ is set mainly in a fast tempo. The music is vigorous and strongly rhythmic and the independent organ part is as exciting as the vocal writing. Part way through comes a substantial bass solo. The vocal writing for the soloist sounds testing and, to my ears, Christopher Sheldrake occasionally sounds strained. His colleagues, Iain Milne (tenor) and Stephen Foulkes (bass) sound more comfortable with their solo parts in ‘Deus misereatur’. In fact, the solo passages carry a considerable amount of the musical argument in this latter piece. Both canticles have the same, exuberant music for the doxology. The unaccompanied ‘Mag’ features some rich-textured choral writing. The writing for choir is confident and assertive and, frankly, one doesn’t regret the lack of an organ part; the choral music is strong enough not to need any support. The ‘Nunc dimittis’ is a fine, thoughtful piece. Unlike their companions, these two canticles have different doxologies; the one provided for the ‘Nunc’ is gentle, even subdued.
The biggest work on the disc is the Missa Sancti Pauli
, which was written with the substantial acoustics – and the substantial organ – of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral expressly in mind. In his booklet note the composer writes that the music was conceived on a grand scale – which is certainly true – and that it takes some of its inspiration from the French Messe Solennelle
. At various times Bednall has been a pupil of two distinguished organists, Naji Hakim and David Briggs. Having heard Briggs play many times on the organ of Gloucester Cathedral and having heard Hakim on disc and radio a few times I think their influence is apparent in this work, not least in some of the massive organ climaxes and the use on several occasions of full-throated, reed-dominated registrations.
The Mass is a very ambitious and often a dramatic work, which makes considerable demands, I’m sure, on the choir and on the organist, though in this performance it sounds as if all these demands are more than satisfied. The ‘Kyrie’ is intense and supplicatory and Bednall is not afraid to screw up the tension, especially during the ‘Christe eleison’. In this performance the ‘Gloria’ follows attacca
. The opening music is fiercely exuberant – the organ writing is often on a massive scale. The more subdued, slower music that Bednall provides at ‘Domine fili unigenite’ offers much-needed contrast but soon the pace picks up again. Towards the end the organ part put me in mind of Messiaen at his most magisterial. The ‘Amen’ is simply vast.
The ambitious writing continues in the ‘Sanctus’, even though the movement is quite short – less than three minutes in duration. In his notes Bednall refers to “a great wall of infinite praise.” It’s followed by a beautiful setting of the ‘Benedictus’, which the composer describes as the emotional heart of the work. Of particular note here is the highly effective writing for two solo sopranos over a hushed organ accompaniment. The two soloists, Sophie Gallagher and Follasade-Nelleke Lapido, sing with distinction, their voices combining delightfully. The ‘Agnus Dei’ gets off to a brooding start. Though the music isn’t as overtly dramatic as that which we heard in the ‘Kyrie’ it’s still very intense. Bednall achieves a soft, luminous end to the work in which soprano and tenor solos soar gently over the rest of the ensemble.
This Mass setting is undeniably impressive. I do wonder, however, if the demands made on the musicians, not least the organist, are so considerable as to put it beyond the range of at least some choral establishments. Also, perhaps the gestures are so dramatic at times as to inhibit its frequent liturgical use. However, even if that happens I’m sure the setting works just as well in a concert context and this extremely fine recording will bring it to a wider audience.
The shorter pieces are all well done and, like everything else on this disc, they are receiving their first recordings. I wondered about that statement in the case of O come let us sing
, since that also appears on the recent disc of Bednall’s Requiem
. However, on that disc we hear the version for upper voices whereas this present disc offers the four-part setting. Also, if one was being pedantic, the sessions for this Wells CD took place first by a few weeks! Behold, O God our defender
was composed on 12 September 2001, the day after, and as a direct response to, the terrorist atrocities in the USA. The setting, for unaccompanied choir, takes words from Psalm 84. For much of the time the choir sings in slow, grave eight-part harmony. Particularly effective are the quietly luminous harmonies for the last line: “O Lord of Hosts, blessed is the man that trusteth in thee.” This piece was clearly an instinctive response to the dreadful events of the previous day – and an eloquent response at that. I wonder if Bednall was inspired, in choosing his text, by the knowledge that Herbert Howells, an acknowledged key influence on his own music, had written a piece with the same title and using some of the same words?
The souls of the righteous
is also for unaccompanied choir and here again we can appreciate Bednall’s excellent ear for choral textures. Also to be admired, once more, is his sensitivity to words; this piece is an eloquent response to moving words from the Book of Wisdom. It’s a lovely work and the best is reserved for the end when a radiant soprano solo line – the excellent Sophie Gallagher again – is heard over the hushed choir. By contrast, Everyone Sang
, with which the disc opens, is an extrovert piece, as befits a composition for a wedding. This anthem features some truly arresting choral writing and achieves a huge, ecstatic climax on the words “Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted.” The piece must have made a strong impression when first performed at a wedding in Wells Cathedral and it impresses now when recorded in the same building.
I was impressed with my first exposure to David Bednall’s music on disc and this latest CD confirms that excellent impression. It seems to me that he has an instinctive empathy with choirs and, on the evidence I’ve heard to date, his writing for them is assured and effective. A fine organist in his own right, he writes as effectively as one might expect for his own instrument. His music is superbly served by Matthew Owens and his excellent choir while the contributions of Jonathan Vaughn at the Wells organ are thrilling one moment and sensitive the next. This disc is a fine successor to Regent’s previous issues of David Bednall’s music.