RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Gabriel JACKSON (b. 1962)
Beyond The Stars - Sacred Choral Works: Volume II
The Glory of the Lord [2:31]
Fanfare for St. Mary’s [1:53]
The Christ-child [4:18]
Hymn to St. Margaret of Scotland [8:36]
Jesu, Rex admirabilis [6:07]
Ah, mine heart [4:39]
Missa Sanctae Margaretae [14:15]
Justorum animae [4:14]
Vidi aquam [4:53]
Let us all rejoice in the Lord [2:19]
In all his works [4:35]
The Land of Spices [4:47]
Ecce venio cito [5:25]
Choir of St. Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh/Duncan Ferguson
Nicolas Wearne (organ)
rec. 15-16 September and 22-24 November 2011, St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Edinburgh, Scotland. DDD
DELPHIAN DCD 34106 [68:38]
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 water freely”.
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 is soulless.
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
Gabriel Jackson surely has no finer advocates.
see also review by John Quinn (July 2012 Recording of the Month)