Great British Anthems
Sir Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918)
Blest Pair of Sirens (1887) [11:35]
Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Magnificat for double choir in B-flat (1918) [12:03]
Sir John STAINER (1840-1901)
I saw the Lord (c.1856) [7:08]
E. W. NAYLOR (1867-1934)
Vox Dicentis: Clamavi (1911) [8:54]
Sir William WALTON (1902-1983)
The Twelve (1965) [11:33]
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
Nunc Dimittis (1915) [3:25]
Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)
Lo, the full final sacrifice (1946) [15:37]
Vasari Singers/Jeremy Backhouse
Jeremy Filsell (organ)
rec. Tonbridge School Chapel, Tonbridge, Kent, UK, 20-22 February 2009.
NAXOS 8.572504 [70:15]
Hubert Parry is best known for his coronation anthem I was glad, and for his hymn tune Jerusalem, a setting of Blake’s magnificent poem. The hymn alludes to the legend that Jesus spent time in England during the undocumented years between his childhood and the beginnings of his ministry in and about his homeland.
Parry is sadly underrated today, even though he composed a number of fine symphonies that are on a level with Elgar and dare I say it, even Brahms. He is represented here by Blest Pair of Sirens, to a text by John Milton, a less often performed, but no less glorious work than those aforementioned. Alas, from a disc of otherwise quite outstanding performances, this rendition is found wanting. The booming acoustic, the thundery organ and a general lack of attention to enunciation render the text of this marvelous work unintelligible. Add to the fray a wayward member of the tenor section whose overzealous brightness of tone sticks out like a badly-voiced reed stop, and you get a performance that leaves something to be desired.
Now that those quibbles are out of the way, we can get on to what is one of the finer choral recordings that have crossed my desk in some time. Stanford’s rich double choir Magnificat, dedicated to the memory of Parry, with whom the composer had a longstanding and sadly unresolved parting of the ways, receives a splendid performance with all the elements of clarity, intonation, balance and tone in place.
John Stainer is ridiculed today as the apex of Victorian bad taste. But in spite of his rather trite and passé style, he should be remembered as a fine teacher and scholar, and as an organist and choirmaster who helped to revolutionize Anglican church music. I saw the Lord, is a diehard favorite and here receives a clear and unaffected performance by the Vasari Singers.
E.W. Naylor was primarily a composer of operas, and his Vox Dicentis: Clamavi of 1911 reflects his dramatic flair. My reaction to this work has always been “oh yeah, I sang that piece once.” Although it is flashy, I have never found it to be particularly memorable. The Vasari’s performance is stately and without undue affect.
Walton’s music is marked by taut rhythms and spicy, jazz-influenced chords. The Twelve, with a text by the oft-acerbic W.H. Auden is typical Walton with splendidly biting harmonies and jaunty off beat rhythmic gestures. Again, the Vasaris do not disappoint with a finely hewn performance that captures all of Walton’s seriousness deliciously offset by wit.
Holst’s glorious Nunc Dimittis lay fallow for many years until it was rediscovered in the 1970s and thankfully restored to the repertoire. It is distinguished by a splendid cascade of vocal entries marked by shimmering harmonies and a most sensitive setting of the text. My only beef with this performance is that it seemed a bit rushed. There could have been more time for the lush chords to settle into place. I also felt that the ending was a bit to edgy in its loudness.
Gerald Finzi lived all too short a life for one so very gifted. His epic motet Lo, the full final Sacrifice, shows him in his finest hour. It is a masterpiece, a perfect union of music and word and is abundant in simply ravishing sounds. Ravishing is as good a word as any to describe this splendid performance that achieves near perfection. Mr. Backhouse leads a seamless performance of a work that can be maddeningly “sectional” when in the wrong hands. This fine rendition is worth the very affordable price of the whole disc.
To sum it all up, this is a collection of great standards that on the whole is left in very able hands. The flaws, although distinct, are few enough not to detract from what is generally some very fine singing indeed. Organist Jeremy Filsell is up to his usual fine standards with sensitive registrations and technically flawless playing.
In general, a fine program of great war-horses from the Anglican choral canon. The minor flaws do not overshadow the overall excellence of these performances.
Kevin Sutton sings, writes and teaches in Dallas, TX. You can read his blog at www.thetenordiaries.blogspot.com, and catch his radio broadcasts at www.rationalbroadcasting.com.