A Song of Farewell – Music of Mourning and Consolation
Orlando GIBBONS (1583-1625) arr. Percy DEARMER (1867-1936)
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 (c.1515-1550)
In manus tuas [4:05]
Jonathan DOVE (b.1959)
Into thy hands [8:14]
Thomas MORLEY (1557/8-1602)
Funeral Sentances [10:16]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
They are at rest [3:31]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Requiem [24:02]
C. Hubert H. PARRY (1848-1918)
Lord, let me know mine end (Songs of Farewell) [11:42]
The Gabrieli Consort/Paul McCreesh
rec. The Lady Chapel, Ely Cathedral, England, 8-10 November 2009

This is a disc of staggering beauty and effortless sophistication. Every element of it oozes care in conception and execution right down to the austere simplicity of the pure white booklet design and tastefully discreet aquamarine print. I am wary of compilation albums and also of baroque specialists who suddenly turn their hand to other eras of music. On both fronts Paul McCreesh and his superb Gabrieli Consort prove me woefully wrong in this instance.
The sub-title of the disc elegantly sums up the contents – “music of mourning and consolation”. In the discussion/liner McCreesh explains that the programme was built around the main work – the extraordinary Howells Requiem – to reflect different aspects of grief, death, loss and crucially consolation across the centuries. Not all the works are specifically settings of the liturgy for the dead but the abiding emotion is one of reflection and ultimate redemption. In the hands of lesser groups this might make for a rather high quality even saccharine background music CD. The Gabrieli’s enormous skill is their super-sensitive response to the texts and an extraordinarily fine control of dynamic, balance and line.
Until the programme reaches the aforementioned Howells the music alternates very effectively between 16th and 20th century composers. From the very first bars of the opening item Orlando Gibbons’ ravishing Drop, drop slow tears (in an arrangement by Percy Dearmer) the listener is drawn into an ecstatically visionary world of gently poised pain and regret. McCreesh makes so many subtle yet effective choices; he includes women’s voices in the Gibbons because of the 19th/20th century arrangement but stays with men alone for the other ‘early’ works. The music is paired to allow ancient and modern conceptions of the same enduring human emotions. That is the central message of the disc – the mode of expression may change over the centuries but mankind’s experience of those emotions remains the same. The presence of the male altos in such works as the Howells give the inner lines a steely edge which again stops the music sinking into the soupy pastoralism that can afflict much 20th century British music and its performance.
The choice of the richly resonant Lady Chapel in Ely Cathedral benefits nearly all the music and certainly endows the entire disc with a wholly suitable ecclesiastical air. This is one of those rare discs where every individual item is a joy in itself yet the impact of the whole is greater still. It is quite impossible to select any portion as ‘better’ than any other but my predilection for 20th century British music does draw me towards James MacMillan’s sublime A Child’s Prayer written as a response to the Dunblane School massacre and Jonathan Dove’s Into thy hands. Listen to the way – as programmed – out of the unearthly stillness at the end of the MacMillan (so very beautifully sung) the In Manus tuas by the 16th Century John Sheppard emerges. The juxtaposition, more spiritual consonance really, takes both works to a higher level still. Dove sets the same text – initially - as Sheppard. He is following in the Anglican tradition of Howells with a setting of iridescent beauty. The harmonies slide from shimmering dissonance to warm consonance. It sounds like a brute to sing with the kind of poise and grace achieved here. Curiously the two works that made least impact are the Elgar and Parry. The Elgar sounds a little bit cosy in its harmony and emotional range in comparison with the rest of the programme. The Parry is the one work which with its contrapuntal complexity suffers most in the blurring acoustic of the cathedral. Not that these are anything but super-fine performances of these great works. It is just that the bar is set so high on this disc that they come up relatively short.
This leaves the Howells Requiem. Its association with the tragic loss of his nine year old son is well-known and although written some years before that disaster it was the work he mined for what became his masterpiece Hymnus Paradisi in 1950. The original Requiem was not released for publication until 1980 and can now be seen as the seminal work from which Howells’ association with the Anglican Liturgy grew. It remains one of the great liturgical works by a 20th century British composer and as such has been well served on disc. There are numerous versions available from just about every type of choir from boy-voiced church choirs to mixed secular groups. The Gabrieli Consort are the equal of any and as elsewhere benefit from a heightened yet subtle response to the text and the musical implications of it. This is subtle and refined music-making not crude word-painting or ugly pointing up of passing musical material. The sense is that one has stumbled on an act of private and personal grieving. There is an intimacy and an identification with the restrained passion of the work that transcends the physical act of ‘making music’ and reaches to the very essence - offering both mourning and consolation. I imagine the recording of this work in the glorious space that is Ely Cathedral must have been a very spiritually uplifting and moving experience for the performers – it certainly sounds that way.
A few last practical details; full texts are printed with English-only translations where necessary. The format of the CD is the increasingly popular mini-book style with the disc slipping neatly into a pocket inside the front cover. The liner is beautifully printed on high quality paper in English only. It includes several photographs from the sessions as well as a couple of very atmospheric pictures of the cathedral. The interview/liner between Paul McCreesh and Consort member Greg Skidmore is that rarest of things – interesting and informative. Special mention to producer Adrian Peacock and engineer Neil Hutchinson who have achieved a perfect recording for this kind of disc; atmospheric yet detailed, intimate yet able to expand to meet the demands of the several passionately ecstatic climaxes. My only surprise is that it seems to have been recorded in 2009. Why have we had to wait so long for a disc of such quality? A disc of the year without doubt.
Nick Barnard

A disc of the year without doubt.