A Song of Farewell - Music of Mourning and Consolation
Orlando GIBBONS (1583-1623) Drop, Drop Slow Tears [2:00]; William WALTON (1902-1983) A Litany: Drop, Drop Slow Tears [4:25]; Robert WHITE (c:1538-1574) Christe, qui lux es et dies [4:29]; James MACMILLAN (b:1959) A Child’s Prayer [4:12]; John SHEPPARD (1515-1505) In Manus Tuas [4:05]; Jonathan DOVE (b:1959) Into thy hands [8:14]; Thomas MORLEY (1557-1602) Funeral Sentences [10:16]; Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) They are at Rest [3:29]; Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983) Requiem [24:02]; Sir Hubert PARRY (1848-1918) Lord let me know mine end [11:42]
Gabrieli Consort/Paul McCreesh
rec. 8-10 November 2011, Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral. DDD
SIGNUM SIGCD 281 [75:56]
See also reviews by Nick Barnard and John Quinn
The first thing to realise is that this is a ‘concept’ album - all very trendy and popular at present. It comes in a white hard-covered booklet with the disc tidily attached inside. The paper is good quality and the texts are in English only with trendy monochrome photos of the performers and of misty-moisty mornings in Ely.
You could argue that Paul McCreesh is not new to this kind of disc. I’m thinking particularly of his dazzlingly successful ‘A Venetian Coronation 1595’ originally on Virgin Classics (1990). There’s also his slightly overlooked but wonderful recording of ‘Venetian Easter Mass’ (1997) on Archiv. Whereas these earlier discs were stylistically consistent this new one is a bit of a dog’s dinner with Robert White rubbing shoulders with Jonathan Dove. In the accompanying notes - which take the form of an interview between McCreesh and Gregg Skidmore a member of the Gabrieli Consort and a Ph.D. student - Skidmore comments that the title ‘is not especially cheery’. Even so, McCreesh’s point is well made that this music acts as a consolation for those who are confronting death either personally or with a loved one - that is the power of music. We need to “seek God’s protection from the perils of life’s journey”.
The disc begins with two settings of Drop, Drop Slow Tears by Gibbons and Walton. Further consolation is to be found in MacMillan’s glorious A Child’s Prayer which was composed after the Dunblane massacre to remember the dead. Then we have a calm and dignified performance of Morley’s Funeral Sentences still in use today in various churches. A complete Requiem one of the most moving of all time by Herbert Howells. It includes a setting of Psalm 23 sometimes known in its hymnal guise as Crimond and used at funerals everywhere. The text of John Sheppard’s comforting and blissful In Manus tuas, an evening hymn includes the lines “Into your hands O Lord I commend my spirit”. Indeed I could go through each piece and wax lyrical. Instead I will say that the CD could be enjoyed simply track by track, or, and this is rarely recommendable, straight through in one sitting, I did both and especially appreciated the latter before retiring for a easy night’s sleep.
This appeared at first to be a self-indulgent disc by a choir whose real expertise lies in what some people regard as rather cerebral early music and who are out to indulge themselves in slow, mournful and expressively unvaried pieces. In fact it becomes a fascinating mélange of approaches to the subject of death and of how we each face it. It should be said immediately that the singing is exemplary and the recorded balance flawless, set as it is in the perfect acoustic of the Chapter House at Ely. It is good to have the texts as no matter how good the choir, counterpoint and resonance can often smother even the best of diction.
The longest work is the Howells. One must ask how it bears up, coming as it does towards the end of a rather ‘weepy’ programme. There are several versions of it on the market but can we ignore this one just because of the context of its presentation? When I listen to this work I feel that it is the most beautiful piece I’ve ever heard. I thought that the version by The Finzi Singers on Chandos under Paul Spicer (CHAN 9019) was unbeatable but this new one is certainly its equal. It is beautifully paced, and the solo work which can be a weakness is ideal; the balance, just lovely. I prefer it in fact, as it is unhurried and even more expressive than Spicer being almost four minutes slower in performance.
Finally to Parry’s Songs of Farewell written towards the end of his life. The Parry gives this disc its title. Lord let me know mine end, the last of the set of six is rather less well known. It’s a challenging piece. Here it is given an emotional reading which exemplifies what McCreesh says in his conversation: that he often exhorts professional singers to remember, as they can become overly familiar with some texts, to sing with passion.
So, a fine disc this. I concur with other reviewers on this site in saying no less than ‘buy it’.
Gary Higginson 

A fine disc this. Buy it.