RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Gabriel JACKSON (b. 1962)
A ship with unfurled sails
The Voice of the Bard (2007)* [6:35]
Now I have known, O Lord (2004) [7:11]
O Doctor optime (2003)* [3:53]
Missa Triueriensis (2005) [11:42]
Thomas, Jewel of Canterbury (2004) [7:41]
Sanctum est verum lumen (2005) [7:54]
Angeli, archangeli (2007)* [7:27]
A ship with unfurled sails (2009)* [6:50]
Æterna cæli gloria (2007)* [6:36]
Ave regina cælorum (2008)* [12:27]
The State Choir Latvija/Māris Sirmais/Kaspars Zemītis (electric guitar)
rec. 11, 12, 15, 18, 19 March and 21 April 2010, St. John’s Church, Riga. DDD
Original texts and English translations included
*Denotes première recording
HYPERION CDA67976 [78:21]
Gabriel Jackson’s star is very much in the ascendant these days, especially where his vocal music is concerned. His pieces frequently crop up in mixed recital programmes on disc and to my certain knowledge this is the fourth CD devoted entirely to his choral music. One of these was issued by Hyperion (review) and two by Delphian (review review). In addition the Vasari Singers’ recent disc that included the première recording of his Requiem was given over largely to Jackson’s music (review). My experience to date has been that Jackson’s prominence is fully justified by the quality of the music and that impression is emphatically confirmed by this new release.
The State Choir Latvija is an SATB chorus comprising 57 singers. Though it doesn’t say so in the booklet I believe it’s a professional choir -it certainly sounds like one. As an aside, when I was looking through the booklet I saw listed in the tenor section a name that looked familiar: it’s the composer Ēriks Ešenvalds, a Hyperion disc of whose choral music I reviewed in 2011. On the evidence of this disc The State Choir Latvija is an exceptionally fine ensemble. They can produce a tone of great depth and richness, their fortissimo singing is thrilling and their soft singing is equally exciting. Tuning and balance are impeccable and though nearly sixty singers are involved the choir sings with great flexibility. Several works on this programme include solo passages, none of them easy. All are taken by members of the choir and, without exception, all are done extremely well. All this reflects huge credit on Māris Sirmais, their conductor since 1997 - the choir was established in 1942.
As will be seen, several of the pieces are here receiving their first recordings. In fact, only two of the works were previously known to me and those were the first I sampled. Now I have known, O Lord is the piece which first made me sit up and take notice of Gabriel Jackson’s music back in 2005. It was commissioned by the Vasari Singers to mark their 25th anniversary and they recorded it on their excellent album, Anthems for the 21stCentury (review). I was deeply impressed by both the music and the performance by the Vasaris. However, fine though their version is, even they can’t match the rich blend and sonority of this professional Latvian choir. It’s a profound piece and, as befits the words, the music has a wonderfully mystic feel to it. The work gets a superb performance here; the ecstatic, full-toned climax is thrilling.
I’ve also encountered before, both on disc and in concert, Jackson’s homage to Spem in Alium, his forty-part piece Sanctum est verum lumen. This is a remarkable composition. Jackson has said that the music is “essentially about light” and at times here he achieves a blinding radiance such as one experiences - in very different music - in the movement ‘Holy is the true light’ in Howells’s Hymnus Paradisi - Jackson sets the same words but in Latin. Jackson’s textures are complex and often busy but through the skill of Māris Sirmais and his singers a commendable degree of clarity is achieved. The performance is beautifully recorded and the different groups of singers are well differentiated.
I suppose it had to happen one day, and it has. Among the pieces that are new to me I’ve found a choral work by Gabriel Jackson for which I don’t much care. There’s nothing wrong with the vocal music in Ave regina cælorum; that’s up to Jackson’s usual standard but it’s the inclusion of a part for electric guitar that I find hard to take. Most of the time the instrument sounds brash and I find it jars horribly. To me its presence, the style of the guitar’s music and the sounds it produces seem completely at odds both with the music given to the choir and to the words that Jackson has set. Most of the instrument’s contributions are far too prominent - perhaps it’s heard in the foreground by design, of course - and it distracts from the choir and from the words. There are two lovely soprano solo passages and, to be fair, the music that the guitar plays during these sections is much more restrained. Indeed, in the last pages of the piece, where the vocal writing, including that for the soloist, is hushed and rapt the guitar gently sustains single notes and at this point its participation is effective.
No reservations about the remainder of the programme, however. I fancy it may have given Jackson particular pleasure to write Thomas, Jewel of Canterbury since he himself was a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral. It’s a setting of a Latin text in honour of Thomas Becket, found in a fourteenth-century English manuscript. It’s a remarkable composition, evoking the medieval organum style. The virtuoso music is delivered with great assurance and conviction by these Latvian singers. They also excel in a very different piece, A ship with unfurled sails. This is a setting of an Estonian poem in English translation. Running through the music like a thread is a repeated figure for altos which evokes brilliantly the sound of lapping waters. Over this we hear long, eloquently yearning, unison melodic lines. The whole thing is hypnotic and intense and the booklet cover illustration complements this music marvellously.
I also enjoyed and admired The Voice of the Bard, a setting of words by William Blake. This is a fascinating piece, vivid and dramatic and the music often has great urgency. Excellent also is Missa Triueriensis, a missa brevis, sung in Latin, which was written for Truro Cathedral. In this work Jackson packs a remarkable amount into a setting that in total takes less than twelve minutes to perform.
Even though I haven’t mentioned every piece in this programme all the music is full of interest and is written with what we’ve come to expect from this composer; namely a highly imaginative ear for choral texture, great empathy for the human voice and tremendous responsiveness to texts. It’s hard - nay, impossible - to imagine these pieces receiving finer advocacy than they receive from the superb Latvian choir, who give one of the most memorable exhibitions of unaccompanied choral singing that I’ve heard for some time. If you factor in also that the recorded sound is splendid and the documentation up to Hyperion’s usual excellent standards then this disc can only be regarded as a pretty compelling proposition.
A memorable exhibition of unaccompanied choral singing and more fine music by Gabriel Jackson.
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