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A Song of Farewell. Music of Mourning
Orlando GIBBONS (1583-1625)
arr. Percy DEARMER (1867-1936) Drop, Drop, Slow Tears
Sir William WALTON (1902-1983)
A Litany: Drop, Drop, Slow Tears [2:00]
Robert WHITE (c 1538-1574)
Christe, qui lux es et dies (I) [4:29]
James MACMILLAN (b. 1959)
A Child’s Prayer [4:12]
John SHEPPARD (c 1515-1550)
In manus tuas (I) [4:05]
Jonathan DOVE (b. 1959)
Into Thy Hands [8:14]
Thomas MORLEY (1557/8–1602)
Funeral Sentences [10:16]
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
They are at rest [3:31]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Sir Hubert PARRY (1848-1918)
Lord, let me know mine end (from Songs of Farewell) [11:42]
Gabrieli Consort/Paul McCreesh
rec. 8-10 November 2009, Lady Chapel, Ely Cathedral. DDD
Original texts and English translations included
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD281 [75:56]
Not long ago Paul McCreesh launched the collaboration between his new Winged Lion label and Signum Classics with a magnificent recording of the Berlioz Grande Messe des Morts (review). This follow-up release treats the theme of death in a very different way and on a much smaller, more intimate scale.
The centrepiece of the recital is the luminously beautiful Requiem of Herbert Howells. The remainder of the programme has been chosen with discerning perception and it will be noted that that there are some intelligent – and contrasting – pairings; the settings by Gibbons and Walton of the same text, for instance, and the pieces by Sheppard and Jonathan Dove, even though these are not settings of identical words. I think, too, that it was an excellent idea to finish not with the Howells, which might have been the obvious thing to do but, rather, to place Parry’s marvellous setting of verses from Psalm 39 as a wonderful coda, not just to the Howells but to everything else that we’ve heard before it. Indeed, this is one recital disc that demands to be heard from start to finish as a sequence.
The Gibbons piece is given a wonderful, seamless performance. McCreesh’s approach to the Walton setting is similarly dedicated though some may feel it’s just a bit on the slow side. Certainly, it’s taken as slowly as I can recall, bringing out an extra degree of reflection in Walton’s music. The performance is exquisitely moulded and the spacious treatment means that details such as the dissonance on the word “feet” (0:40) are very telling.
Robert White’s Christe, qui lux es et dies is not concerned with death or mourning as such; it’s a hymn for the office of Compline. However, the words fit very well with the concept of McCreesh’s programme, which is nicely outlined in his booklet interview with Greg Skidmore. The chant verses in this performance seemed just a fraction on the slow side to me – of course they have to fit with the pacing of the polyphonic verses – but it’s still a very satisfying performance. Sheppard’s In manus tuas, which is, like the White, beautifully shaped also sounded expansive but when I checked against some other performances in my collection I found that McCreesh’s pacing is on a par with others.
The other Renaissance piece in the programme is Morley’s Funeral Sentences. These have often been sung at British royal funerals, as McCreesh reminds us. The words, an assortment of scriptural texts, are magnificent, full of meaning, and they have a timeless quality to them which is emphasised by this present performance. The dignity and simplicity of Morley’s music makes a telling effect and the male voice textures – altos on the top line – enhance the atmosphere greatly.
Among the more recent compositions, James MacMillan’s A Child’s Prayer – his eloquent response to the infamous Dunblane massacre - is a piece I’ve heard on several previous occasions. Like so much of his vocal music it’s superbly imagined for voices and the piece is very moving. This performance is superb and conveys the air of innocence that MacMillan’s piece wears despite its musical sophistication. I don’t recall hearing Jonathan Dove’s Into Thy Hands before but I was deeply impressed by it. It’s a continuous setting of two prayers by St Edmund of Abingdon (1175-1240). The first is set to slow, reflective music containing some wonderful harmonies to illuminate key words. The second prayer begins, I think, at 3:30 and here the music becomes more complex. On reaching the passage that starts with the words “Lord Jesus Christ, mercifully grant me that the rest of my pilgrimage” (5:38) Dove has the basses singing “Into Thy hands” as a subdued ostinato while the rest of the choir sings the remaining text over it to music that is quietly radiant. This is a very fine, memorable piece that I wanted to play again as soon as I’d first heard it and Paul McCreesh and his singers give it a dedicated performance.
Their account of the Howells also comes into the dedicated category. Until now the Hyperion recording by the Corydon Singers – the work’s première recording, I think - has been the benchmark for me. This new one is on the same exalted level. In the opening movement, ‘Salvator Mundi’ the lines are beautifully blended and the choir’s firm, rounded but expertly integrated bass line is noteworthy. In ‘Requiem Aeternam’ (I), one of several movements in which we hear material subsequently refashioned in the glorious Hymnus Paradisi, every step in Howells’s luminous harmonic progressions is beautifully laid out. Here, as elsewhere, there is great tonal beauty in the singing and the balance, maintenance of line and pacing are all ideal. The concluding movement, ’I heard a voice from heaven’, another precursor of Hymnus Paradisi, is movingly done. There’s a warm baritone solo towards the end – all solos in this performance are splendidly taken – and the gentle, radiant ending is deeply satisfying. Paul McCreesh directs a flawless, exquisitely shaped and sung account of this serene masterpiece. However, please don’t think that flawless perfection means an antiseptic performance. On the contrary, the engagement of the singers is very evident.
As a coda we hear Parry’s wonderful double choir motet, the last of his Songs of Farewell. This performance is superbly controlled. McCreesh makes excellent use of the rests, which are such an important feature of Parry’s writing. It’s a very demanding piece, not least because there are so many changes of pace and mood, making it challenging to sustain the musical argument. Suffice to say that this performance is fully worthy of Parry’s inspired choral writing.
Some years ago John Rutter demonstrated in several recordings with his Cambridge Singers that the acoustic of Ely Cathedral’s Lady Chapel is ideal for repertoire and forces such as this. On this occasion producer Adrian Peacock and balance engineer Neil Hutchinson have achieved a superb recording which captures the warm, intimate ambience of the venue and which achieves a fine clarity at the same time. The documentation is excellent and is beautifully produced.
This is a disc of great distinction.