Paul MEALOR (b. 1975)
A Tender Light
Ubi caritas [3:53]
Locus iste [6:32]
She walks in beauty [4:49]
Ave Maria [7:04]
Now sleeps the crimson petal (Four madrigals on Rose texts) [12:49]
Stabat Mater [23:26]
Salvator mundi: Greater Love [6:20]
O vos omnes [5:20]
Wherever You Are* [3:00]
Tenebrae; * Alexander Mason (organ)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Nigel Short
rec. 11-14 July 2011, St. Jude-on-the-Hill Church, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London; *12 December 2011, St Giles, Cripplegate, London
Original texts and English translations included. Notes in English and Welsh
DECCA 4764814 [73:54]
In terms of exposure for his music Paul Mealor enjoyed something of an annus mirabilis in 2011. In April, at the request of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, his Ubi caritas was sung at their wedding and was heard by a huge global audience. Towards the end of the year his song, Wherever You Are was featured in the BBC television series in which Gareth Malone formed the Military Wives Choir. Their recording of Mealorís song, which sets words taken from some of the letters between the wives and their husbands on active service in the UK Armed Forces, caught the imagination of the British public and sold in such numbers that it topped the UK pop charts at Christmas. Both pieces are included here.
When I heard Ubi caritas during the royal wedding I thought it was a somewhat grey piece. I now think that was an unfair judgement or maybe itís just that the performance by Tenebrae gives the music a stronger profile? Itís a re-working of the music for a Tennyson setting, Now sleeps the crimson petal, which we shall encounter later on in this programme in its original version as the first of four pieces in the eponymous cycle. Itís most interesting to compare the two pieces: essentially, what Mealor did was to put the music into a higher key for Ubi caritas and, at the very end, a treble soloist sings a fragment of the Ubi caritas plainchant. Here the same soloist as sang at the wedding is used. I think the music itself actually fits the liturgical words rather better than the Tennyson text for which it was originally written.
At this point I think I should put my cards on the table and say that I donít think Paul Mealor has been well served by the ordering of the music on this disc. There are far too many pieces following each other that are of a very similar stamp, which is to say the music proceeds homophonically, very often in block chords, and at a slow pace. Itís sincere and sometimes, as in the case, of Ave Maria, rather beautiful but one can have too much of a good thing and eventually I found myself yearning for some counterpoint or for music in a swifter tempo and, frankly, for some relief from block chord a cappella choral music. Swifter music eventually arrives when we reach the third of the Now sleeps the crimson petal set, ĎUpon a bank with rosesí. This is an attractive setting in which the singersí music suggests the sounds made by a trickling brook. However, one has had to wait rather a long time for this element of variety.
To be fair, the preceding tracks contain some good music: the aforementioned Ave Maria, for example, strikes me as a sincere, prayerful setting and the performance by Tenebrae is as beautiful as the music itself. The last of the four Now sleeps the crimson petal songs, ĎA Spotless Roseí, is also a good setting; it is described by the composer as the emotional heart of the cycle. We are back to slow block harmonies once again at the start but eventually some independent melodic lines break free and to good effect.
The main work on the disc is Stabat Mater, which Mealor tells us was written at a difficult point in his life. Unsurprisingly, therefore, itís an intense piece, as befits the text. It consists of four movements which are played without a break. In the first, yet again, slow block harmonies prevail. This is grave music, which the choir sings unaccompanied. Especially remarkable here is the depth of the bass part. After 4:15 Mealor has set all of the text assigned to this music but he then repeats most of what weíve already heard, which strikes me as a bit superfluous. The orchestra, which I take to be fairly small, then joins the choir for the remaining three movements. The second movement features an important soprano solo. Grace Davidson sings with lovely tone but, even when listening through headphones, I found it very difficult to make out all the words she sings. The music of this movement Ė and the performance it receives Ė is obviously deeply felt but I had an uneasy feeling that the material was being stretched a little too far. The third movement takes the form of a passacaglia and the tempo is vigorous. Thereís real fire in this music, which is enhanced by Tenebraeís dynamic singing. The fourth movement revisits material from the preceding movements, chiefly the first. A big climax is attained at ĎParadisi gloriaí before the quiet, harp-decorated close.
Salvator mundi: Greater Love is an interesting piece. Mealor deploys an SATB solo quartet which sings words in Latin while the choir sings a different text in English. To spice things up the quartetís music is in G minor while the choirís material is in G major. The contrast of texture between quartet and choir is good and is enhanced by the ardour of the quartetís contribution.
At the very end of the disc comes a Ďbonus trackí, namely Wherever You Are with Grace Davidson singing the solo. Mealor has written a nice tune for this piece but I donít think that was the real reason it became a smash Ďhití. Rather it was the context and the fact that the wives of serving servicemen were singing the piece to and for their loved ones that made it take off commercially. The performance on this disc is a more sophisticated one Ė not that Gareth Maloneís choir lacked polish Ė but somehow the very sophistication is a bit misplaced: it becomes an art song rather than a song from the heart. Give me the Military Wives Choir any day.
Iím sorry that Iíve not been able to respond with more enthusiasm to this disc. Perhaps the contents donít represent the full spectrum of Paul Mealorís compositional style. There is some very nice music here and thereís absolutely no doubt of the composerís sincerity. This is probably a disc better dipped into rather than listened to all in one go, as the reviewer is almost bound to do. That said, I can only report my impressions and, after listening several times, I find a worrying similarity about much of the music. Iím sure this disc will be a great commercial success and I hope it is: itís excellent that a living composer, who has something worthwhile to say in his music, is getting this exposure and itís also important that people get to know him for more than just two short pieces. The performances by Tenebrae are excellent, as one would expect from this source.
Choral pieces by Paul Mealor reveal some beautiful music but also a worrying lack of variety.