This is absolutely one of my discs of the year. In a particularly
well organized and executed program, the recording begins with
tenor Oliver Brewer proclaiming “The glory of the Lord
has risen upon us”, set with several melismatic flourishes,
dispatched with admirable ease. The choir answers breathlessly,
repeating the word “Rejoice” over and over with
ever-increasing enthusiasm. The intensity of the choral writing
seems to peter out, only to become renewed and even more dynamic
as the choir sings “Alleluia”, finally ending with
a joyful shout. This is answered by an organ fanfare specifically
written for the recording, which begins in toccata-like texture
but soon settles into slow-moving, mysterious harmonies that
set the mood for the Christmas lullaby that follows.
Having heard several recordings and performances of Jackson’s
music, I feel confident in saying that The Christ Child
is one of Gabriel Jackson’s most touching creations, a
G. K. Chesterton setting that fully captures the ecstatic mysticism
of the text.
The following two anthems require great virtuosity and a mastery
of more complex compositional structures. Lasting almost 9 minutes,
Hymn to St. Margaret of Scotland opens with seven petitions,
five of which begin with “Salve” (Hail). The choral
writing includes vocal effects, such as slides, rhythmically
speaking the text, and ornamental melodic writing that calls
to mind traditional Scottish folksong. Jackson’s musical
ideas flow into one another with an organic logic that never
allows the music to seem sectional or repetitious. Nothing seems
wasted, every note has a purpose. Treble Antonia Smart’s
solo is wonderful, done with excellent intonation and diction,
while the choir sings as if possessed, having fully mastered
the many difficult and complex technical aspects of this score.
The same is true of Jesu, Rex admirabilis, the choir’s
excellence fully matched by organist Nicolas Wearne’s
superb handling of a particularly demanding organ accompaniment.
Ah, Mine Heart brings a welcome change of mood, with
slow-moving, mostly homophonic writing that requires and receives
excellent intonation to realize fully the close-knit triadic
harmonies with added fourths and sixths. The music and its performance,
perfectly evoke the forlorn atmosphere of the text.
Jackson adopts a simpler compositional style in Missa Sanctae
Margaretae, with easier melodic and harmonic writing. This
is liturgical music, written for use by any choir of modest
ability. It still manages to articulate realize the pleas for
mercy in the Kyrie and Agnus Dei, the joyful affirmations
of the Gloria, as well as the mystical implications of
the Sanctus. The writing is never less interesting for
the adoption of this simpler style.
The CD closes with an impassioned performance of five motets.
Jackson’s setting of Justorum animae is as touching
as C.V. Stanford’s more famous one, and Let Us Rejoice
in the Lord features disjunct melismatic melodic writing
that amply confirms the uniform excellence of St. Mary’s
treble section. Particularly impressive is the setting of George
Herbert’s The Land of Spices, where Jackson is
sensitive enough to keep the musical material simple, thereby
allowing Herbert’s prose to speak unimpeded. The organ
writing seems to feature birdsong - a nod of admiration to Messiaen?
- as the choir fades into silence.
Jackson’s writing, with its chromatically inflected harmonies,
and love of contrapuntal effect, calls to mind that of Herbert
Howells. One could also - as with Howells - detect Jackson’s
admiration and love of Renaissance polyphony. Yet Gabriel Jackson
fully integrates any influences into a completely integrated
unique compositional voice. This is liturgical material that
is first and foremost intended to expand on the mood and meaning
of the text, as perfect a definition as any I have heard for
good church music.
We conclude with Ecce Venio Cito, a gorgeous setting
of Revelation 22:12-13, 17, which describes Christ’s generous
offering of grace to “whoever is willing”. The opening
choral writing is energetic, but soon begins to settle into
gentle alternating textures - homophonic, solo answered by group,
melody in octaves - eventually dissolving completely, leaving
the solo treble to extend the invitation to “take the
The recording is first rate in every way, capturing the densest
textures with pinpoint clarity, while bringing out the warm
halo of sound that the room adds to the voices. Balance between
voices and organ is ideal and if there are times when the enthusiasm
of the singing brings an overly harsh brightness from the trebles,
I will always prefer that to perfectly manicured sound that
Gabriel Jackson surely has no finer advocates than this choir
and their director, Duncan Ferguson. The notes, by Andrew Stewart,
are a model of their kind, and full texts, translations and
biographies are included.
David A. McConnell
see also review by John
Quinn (July 2012 Recording of the Month)