Heaven in Ordinarie - Choral and Organ Music by Philip Wilby
Philip WILBY (b. 1949)
Companions of the Lord: An Evensong
Introit: Companions of the Lord (2009) [3:47]
Preces (2009) [1:08]
Psalm 24: The Earth is the Lord’s (2002) [4:38]
Scriptural Sentence I: Genesis 18: 2-3 (2009) [1:08]
Magnificat (for St Paul’ Cathedral) (1988) [5:42]
Scriptural Sentence II: John 12: 1-3 (2009) [1:38]
Nunc Dimittis (for St Paul’ Cathedral) (1988) [2:39]
Responses and Collects (2009) [6:02]
Ave Maria (2006) [4:30]
Final Responses (2009) [0:59]
Organ Voluntary: Recessional on Michael (1987) [3:31]
Two Choral prayers
A Prayer for St Thomas (2008) [4:12]
Prayer (men’s voices) (2009) [3:34]
Organ Prelude (from A Passion for our Times) (1996) [2:02]
Two Wedding Anthems
Breathe on me, Breath of God (2003) [3:08]
Thou didst delight my eyes (2008) [4:51]
Prelude, Fugue and Toccata for Organ (1991) [10:29]
The Exon Singers/Matthew Owens
Jeffrey Makinson (organ)
rec. 28-30 December, 2009, Wells Cathedral. DDD
REGENT REGCD338 [64:03]
Philip Wilby was born in Pontefract in West Yorkshire. From 1972 he taught in the Music Department at Leeds University, eventually becoming Professor in 2002. I believe he has now retired from the university and moved to Bristol where his wife, an Anglican priest, is Precentor of the Cathedral. Active as a composer for over forty years, you may have heard of him in connection with his compositions for brass band and wind ensemble but it’s clear from his list of compositions published by Chester Novello that he has composed in a wide variety of genres, not the least of which is church music.
The present disc is the result of a year-long association during 2009 with Matthew Owens and his fine choir, the Exon Singers. I like the way this programme has been put together. It would have been easy to assemble a loosely-related collection of short vocal pieces, perhaps breaking them up with a few organ items. Instead, whoever has put together this programme – most likely Matthew Owens and Wilby himself – has had the excellent idea of starting the programme by gathering together several pieces to form an Evensong. I think this is an inspired idea and it works very well in practice on disc – the music was all performed live at an Evensong, broadcast on BBC Radio 3 from Buckfast Abbey in Devon, on 29 July 2009. In particular, this approach shows that Philip Wilby is an excellent composer of music for the liturgy, rather than one who writes music that can be sung in church – there is a difference!
As I say, the Evensong works extremely well as a sequence on disc. It opens with a fine setting of the collect for 29 July, observed in the Anglican Church as the Feast of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, Companions of Our Lord. This setting was written specially for that broadcast evensong. The Psalm setting is a tremendous, exciting piece which is sung fervently by the choir. The independent organ part is superb and contributes, in particular, to the thrilling end of the piece. I was particularly intrigued by the ‘Mag’ and ‘Nunc’ for treble voices – here the ladies of the Exon Singers. This setting is unique in my experience in combining elements of aleatoric writing (the organ part?) with choral writing that is heavily based on plainsong. Towards the end of the Evensong sequence we hear a very beautiful and prayerful eight-part Ave Maria. I should imagine it is challenging to sing but it’s expertly rendered here. To conclude there’s a spectacular organ voluntary on Herbert Howells’s great hymn tune Michael (‘All my hope on God is founded’). The tune is cunningly camouflaged until it proudly bursts through near the end (2:28). The piece is played with panache by Jeffrey Makinson and the Wells Cathedral organ is recorded with magnificent realism.
The rest of the programme, though composed of miscellaneous short works, is no less satisfying. A Prayer for St Thomas is impressive and includes a beautiful soprano solo, which is very well taken by Katie Lyscom, a choir member. The Prayer for men’s voices is a setting of words by George Herbert from which is extracted the phrase that gives the CD its title.
From the notes I infer that Philip Wilby graced the weddings of each of his two daughters with a specially composed anthem. If so, what lovely wedding gifts they must have made. Breathe on me, Breath of God starts easefully, including another felicitous soprano solo (Ali Darragh another excellent soloist from within the choir), and it builds to a more fervent tone in the third stanza before achieving a quiet close. Thou didst delight my eyes is an eloquent setting of words by Robert Bridges – also set by Gerald Finzi. I was reminded a bit of Herbert Howells in this piece and though that may be fanciful on my part I believe that Howells gave Philip Wilby early encouragement to compose.
The programme ends with a short organ triptych, originally composed for Simon Lindley, the long-serving Organist of Leeds Parish Church. Here the music is entrusted to Jeffrey Makinson, whose playing throughout the disc is first rate. The Toccata that concludes this work, which has an overall Christmas theme, is entitled ‘Et incarnatus est’. It’s a scintillating piece and in putting the Wells organ well and truly through its paces Jeffrey Makinson brings this programme of Philip Wilby’s music to a resounding conclusion
In November 2011 Matthew Owens stood down as conductor of the Exon Singers, a post he’d held since 1997. I don’t know if there are any more recordings ‘in the can’ or whether this is his last disc with them. If it is then he’s gone out on a high note. The music on this disc is of a uniformly high quality and so are the performances. The Exon Singers sing with the precision, refinement and attention to detail that one has come to expect from them over the years. The commitment of all the performers to the music seems beyond question and I’m sure Philip Wilby is highly delighted with the results. Quite a number of members of the choir are called upon as soloists, especially tenor Ashley Turnell, and all impress.
In his lively and interesting booklet note the composer writes that “working with and for the church and its music has been a constant thread in my creative life since I joined my local church choir at the age of 11.” If I hadn’t read that statement I think I might have guessed at it just from listening to the music for Wilby composes very naturally for the church. His music seems thoroughly steeped in the Anglican traditions but by no means fettered by it. Indeed, like all the best church music composers, his music enhances, renews and expands that tradition. There’s some fine music on this disc and it’s hard to imagine it receiving better performances.
A disc of fine music by Philip Wilby and it’s hard to imagine it receiving better performances.