Matthew Owens and his excellent Wells Cathedral choir are establishing a formidable reputation for performing and recording significant contemporary church music. Among the notable fruits of their partnership with Hyperion have been discs of music by Kenneth Leighton (review
), William Mathias (review
), and the late Geoffrey Burgon (review
). Their latest offering, which was warmly welcomed by Brian Wilson
in its download format, features the music of Jonathan Dove.
Dove is being increasingly well served on disc, most notably in the recent recording of his opera, Tobias and the Angel
, which made such a strong impression on Robert Hugill (review
). That opera dates from 1989 so itís an earlier work than any of the pieces on this present disc, which spans the period 1990-2009.
The most recent work on the programme is the Missa Brevis
, which was written for the 2009 Cathedral Organistsí Association conference, which was held in Wells. The Mass, here receiving its first recording, was premiered at the conference by Matthew Owens and the Wells choir. A Missa Brevis is a very challenging format for a composer for a successful composition in this genre must make its mark artistically but must also be, by definition, concise. It seems to me that Jonathan Dove meets these criteria fully. His setting is an impressive one, including a Kyrie that rises from quiet, supplicatory beginnings to an anguished climax before sinking back again. The Gloria is an exciting, propulsive creation in which the choir is challenged especially by the need clearly to articulate the words at speed. The vigorous accompaniment drives the music along until, with thrilling open-throated pedal notes, the organ underpins the jubilant final bars. The Wells organ sounds superb at this point. By contrast the Agnus Dei is mostly subdued and prayerful. This is a mass setting which I hope will be taken up widely by other choirs.
The recital includes several Christmas pieces. Perhaps the best known is The Three Kings
, which was written for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at Kingís College, Cambridge. Itís a most inventive and imaginative setting of words by Dorothy L Sayers. In complete contrast is the exuberant Run, shepherds, run
. This is designed for audience participation Ė on this occasion the audience part is taken by Wells Cathedral School Chapel Choir. They deliver the audience parts expertly though I do wonder how well a genuine audience would cope with this teeming, energetic piece even with prior rehearsal. However, there are no co-ordination problems on this occasion and the piece is sung with impressive assurance. Itís huge fun!
Iím tremendously impressed by Ecce beatam Lucem
, one of several pieces on the disc that Iíve heard before (review
). As befits the text, the music is truly luminous in character. Dove builds the music patiently and expansively and creates a wonderful ambience thereby and when the central climax is reached (track 11, 3:29 Ė 4:04) itís a breathtaking and seemingly inevitable moment.
No less impressive is Seek him that maketh the seven stars
in which, as so often in this programme, Doveís adroit ear for choral textures and his melodic invention are heard to very good advantage. The unaccompanied Into thy hands
provides an eloquent and moving conclusion to the programme.
The whole programme is performed to the very highest standards by the Wells choir. The treble line mixes boy trebles and girl sopranos. They must have been taxed by the music on several occasions but you would never know it. The young singers perform with enviable assurance throughout and their tone is never less than full and pleasing. The Vicars Choral provide a fine and expert foundation to the choral tone. Really, this is an expert, committed choir caught in prime form. Clearly theyíve been the beneficiaries of top quality training by Matthew Owens. Jonathan Vaughn contributes superb organ accompaniments to several of the pieces, exploiting the resources of the Wells instrument to the full. Hyperionís engineers, who must be at home in the cathedral by now, have produced very fine sound which registers plenty of detail while setting the singers and the organ believably within the cathedralís acoustic.
This first rate disc can only enhance further the reputations of Wells Cathedral Choir and of Jonathan Dove.