Rise Heart - Romantic English Choral Works
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Light out of darkness (from The Light of Life) [5:19]
Memorial Ode for Queen Alexandra (1932) [7:09]
O salutaris hostia No 1 [1:57]
O salutaris hostia No 2 [3:17]
O salutaris hostia No 3 2:45]
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me (from The Apostles) [7:29]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Five Mystical Songs* [20:29]
Sir Hubert PARRY (1848-1918)
Chorale Prelude on Martyrdom [2:54]
My soul, there is a country [3:36]
Chorale Prelude on Croft’s 136th [3:33]
Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
The Blue Bird [3:29]
Sir Hubert PARRY
Hear my words, ye people [16:28]
*Ben Cooper (baritone); George Castle (organ)
Worcester Cathedral Chamber Choir/Stephen Shellard
rec. 26-27 January and 16-17 March 2011, Worcester Cathedral. DDD
Texts included
REGENT REGCD 369 [78:27]
The Worcester Cathedral Chamber Choir was formed in 1998 by Stephen Shellard, who is a Lay Clerk in the cathedral choir. For this recording it musters 13 sopranos, 10 altos, 8 tenors and 7 basses.
This disc was made particularly to mark the centenary of the first performance of Five Mystical Songs, which took place in Worcester Cathedral at the Three Choirs Festival on 14 September 1911. That was a performance of the full orchestral score; here the accompaniment is played, very sympathetically, on the cathedral organ by George Castle. There are many positive features to the performance, not least the fact that everyone involved sounds committed to the music. That’s certainly true of the baritone soloist, Ben Cooper, who, like the conductor, is a Lay Clerk at Worcester Cathedral. Unfortunately, though he sings accurately and with admirable clarity of tone and diction, I don’t think that Ben Cooper’s voice is ideal to do full justice to the music - or, at least, not for repeated hearings. His well-focused voice is that of a high baritone; indeed, it has some tenorial qualities. The snag is that he doesn’t have the sheer amplitude that the vocal part really needs and that one has heard from many other soloists - and not just high profile artists on disc. His is an intelligent performance that I would be pleased to hear live in concert but the lightness of the voice is a key reason why, in the last analysis, the performance of these lovely songs sounds low-key, though the choir does deliver the final one, ‘Antiphon’, with good spirit.
The other composers and pieces in the programme also have solid Three Choirs Festival connections. Stanford gets fairly scant measure but his exquisite TheBlue Bird suits the choir well. Parry is much more generously represented. Hear my words, ye people is a bit too longwinded - and I say that as a Parry admirer - though the Worcester choir makes a good case for it and the important bass and soprano solos are well taken. I was glad that a couple of Parry’s Chorale Preludes were included for we don’t hear his organ music all that often nowadays. George Castle, who plays splendidly throughout the programme, does both of them well, especially the rather splendid Prelude on Croft’s 136th , which shows Parry’s reverence for Bach.
It’s right and proper that a Worcester choir should offer Elgar. The three early settings of O salutaris hostia need not detain us long. They are early works; simple, direct and devotional in tone, but none of them sets the pulse racing and I doubt they would be heard at all nowadays were not Elgar’s name attached to them. Much more interesting is a work from the opposite end of Elgar’s composing life. Indeed, the Memorial Ode for Queen Alexandra was one of his very last works. The instrumental parts were lost and the piece lay in complete neglect until Anthony Payne - who else? - orchestrated it in 2002. I’ve heard it before now in that guise and in the organ version, recorded here. It’s not great Elgar - the creative fires were by then but embers - but the embers still glowed and the music was well worth reviving even if the words by John Masefield are, as it says in the anonymous liner notes, “very much of their time.” The performance on this disc is very good.
The Worcester choir also makes a good job of Elgar’s The Spirit of the Lord. This is the opening of the oratorio, The Apostles, though it’s often done as a separate anthem, as here. I admired very much the atmospheric organ playing of George Castle in this piece and also the lovely clear sound that the sopranos produce when they have that memorable tune at “For as the earth bringeth forth her bud.” I was a little less impressed with Light out of darkness. The music, from an oratorio which is much earlier than Apostles, is weaker and I felt that the choir needed to give more “beef” in the louder passages.
Make no mistake, the Worcester Cathedral Chamber Choir is good one and it’s been very well prepared by Stephen Shellard. I’ve sung in all the pieces on this disc with the exception of the settings of O salutaris hostia so I know that the music requires a lot of effort to get right. In particular, I admired this choir’s scrupulous attention to detail, especially in the matter of dynamics, yet all the dynamic contrasts sound natural and not studied. The principal reservation I have concerns the balance. At the top of this review I referred to the make-up of the choir and it’s noticeable that there are only seven basses out of a choir numbering thirty-eight singers. Furthermore, the basses sound fundamentally light in tone. No one wants to hear turgid, bottom-heavy singing but I think an extra two or three basses might have made a considerable amount of difference. As it is, My soul, there is a country is one of several examples where the balance is weighted too much in favour of the sopranos.
I should mention one unusual feature of this disc. The booklet contains some reproductions of paintings of Worcester Cathedral, including the cover picture, and of the composers represented. These have been specially commissioned for this recording by the choir from a Worcestershire-based artist, Craig Letourneau - a most imaginative touch.
This is an enjoyable disc containing some fine and discerningly chosen music. I’m sure it will give pleasure to anyone buying it though it enters a highly competitive field and, in particular, there are several versions of Five Mystical Songs in the catalogue that offer a more compelling experience.
John Quinn 

An enjoyable disc but it faces strong competition, especially in Five Mystical Songs.