Sir William WALTON (1902-1983) Choral Music
A Litany - Drop, drop Slow Tears [3:09]
Missa Brevis (Coventry) [8:34]
Set me a seal upon thine heart [3:30]
Antiphon [3:17]
Chichester Service [4:02]
Jubilate Deo [3:41]
Make we Joy now in this Fest [3:18]
All this time [1:47]
What Cheer? [1:20]
Where does the uttered music go [5:12]
The Twelve [11:29]
King Herod and the Cock [1:49]
Stephen Farr (organ)
Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford/Stephen Darlington
rec. 13-14 July 1992, Leominster Priory, Herefordshire, England
Full English and Latin texts provided
NIMBUS RECORDS NI 5364 [53:13]
Where Walton’s choral works are concerned his cantata Belshazzar's Feast eclipses everything else. This is rather a shame as he wrote an impressive body of choral works mainly for liturgical use in the Anglican service. Released in 1993 this is a fine collection of scores spanning 60 years. A number of the works sport an organ accompaniment. A nice touch is that Walton composed three of the scores specifically for Christ Church Cathedral.
Remarkably Walton was a still a chorister at the Cathedral School, Oxford when in 1917 he wrote A Litany - Drop, drop Slow Tears to a text by Phineas Fletcher. An extremely assured and affecting work for one so young, the choral anthem was Walton’s first published score. The most substantial of the scores is the Missa Brevis (Coventry). Composed in 1965 to an anonymous text the compact Missa Brevis was a commission by the Friends of Coventry Cathedral. Here the Short Mass has been arranged in the traditional sequence and not how Walton ordered them. Lasting here around 8.5 minutes Walton cleverly employs a broad variety of choral groupings to convey the sacred text. A rather serious tone imbues three of the sections with the Benedictus developing a more luxuriant style. In the Gloria - opening with a strong organ flourish - I enjoyed the notable treble solo sung by Thomas Gentry with the words ‘O Lord, the only begotten son’. Another highlight is the Agnus Dei, Finale with treble Peter Weir singing an expressive duet with tenor soloists. To text by George Herbert the Antiphon was commissioned for the sesquicentennial in 1977 of St. Paul’s Church, Rochester. Prospects for this late score seemed unfavourable as Walton was ill during the composition of the work and he expressed deep doubts about his ability to write for the organ. A deep and prominent organ part contrasts with the celebratory tone. The whole feels similar in style to his famous ceremonial marches.
At the request of Walter Hussey the Dean of Chichester Cathedral, Walton wrote his settings of the canticles Magnificat and Nunc dimittis known as the Chichester Service in 1974 for the 900th anniversary celebrations at the Cathedral. In the Magnificat Walton creates a rather austere tone complete with organ bursts. Conspicuous in the Nunc dimittis was the striking solo part for bass Robert MacDonald. Walton wrote his Jubilate Deo a setting of Psalm 100 for his alma mater Christ Church College. It was specifically to be performed to celebrate Walton’s seventieth birthday on the occasion of the English Bach Festival. Stephen Darlington was organist when this confident and buoyant work was premièred in 1972 by the Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford directed by Simon Preston. The first in the set of four Christmas Carols is a setting of 15th century traditional text Make we Joy now in this Fest by an anonymous author. Walton wrote it in 1931. Other old English carol settings include All this time from 1961 and What Cheer? from 1970. These are all settings of anonymous 16th century texts. King Herod and the Cock is to another traditional text. For The Twelve Cuthbert Simpson, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford jointly commissioned Walton and W.H. Auden who provided the text. First performed in 1965 Walton described the score as an ‘Anthem for the Feast of any Apostle’. Inhabiting a world close in style to a cantata the substantial score is both impressive musically and emotionally. There is an arresting opening passage sung by alto Andrew Olleston and I was struck by the delightful central duet ‘O Lord, my God, Though I forsake Thee Forsake me not’ sung by treble Thomas Gentry and tenor Jonathon Job. A wedding anthem Set me as a seal upon thine heart was written in 1938 for the wedding of the Hon. Ivor Guest and Lady Mabel Fox-Strangeways. The groom Ivor Guest was the son of Walton’s muse Lady Alice Wimborne. From the Old Testament the words were taken from chapter 8.6/8.7 of the Song of Solomon. It seems that Walton interrupted work on his magnificent Violin Concerto to compose this grace-imbued and respectful wedding anthem. In 1946 Walton composed Where does the uttered music go to a specially written poem by John Masefield. This secular text was intended for the dedication service of a memorial window to Sir Henry Wood at St. Sepulchre’s Church at Holborn, London. It is a most impressive score in which Walton has adroitly managed to create music of near transcendental quality to complement Masefield’s text.
With a total running time of only 53 minutes this disc is a little short measure; considerably shorter than the two finest competing collections of Walton’s choral music that I know. My first choice recommendation in this repertoire is the beautifully performed and recorded disc sung by the Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge directed by Christopher Robinson. Recorded in 2001 at St. John’s College Chapel in Cambridge, that disc lasts 66 minutes. Included are the Coronation Te Deum and the Cantico del Sole together with two highly attractive organ pieces arranged from Walton’s film score to Henry V. Like Darlington’s Nimbus disc, Christopher Robinson uses boy trebles and the disc is Naxos 8.555793. The second alternative is from the Finzi Singers directed by Paul Spicer recorded in 1992 at Marlborough College, Wiltshire on Chandos CHAN 9222. At 70 minutes running time the Chandos also includes the Coronation Te Deum and the Cantico del Sole. Despite being impressively sung Paul Spicer uses women’s voices in the upper parts which I find heavier and generally less satisfying than Stephen Darlington’s boy trebles.
For Nimbus the Christ Church Choir sing with devotion and exquisite tonal blending. Ensuring careful regard for the sacred texts the reverential singing of the trebles radiates considerable vocal character. The singers seem buoyed by Walton’s music some of which was written specifically for the choir. Full texts are provided and these are prominently in English. Only a small piece of Latin text in the Kyrie of the Missa Brevis has not been translated into English. The release also has the benefit of an informative essay by Christopher Palmer. Recorded at Leominster Priory the Nimbus engineers have laid on a quality of sound that enables the listener to hear the music to its finest advantage.
Michael Cookson
Sung with devotion, character and exquisite tonal blending.