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Judith BINGHAM (b. 1952)
Wells Service (2010) [9:56]
Harvest (2008) [6:05]
Missa Brevis ‘Awake my soul’ (2007) [10:04]
The Shepherd (2007) [5:04]
Ave verum corpus (2002) [4:26]
Jesum quaeritis Nazarenum (2003, rev. 2012)* [3:48]
Corpus Christi Carol (2011) [4:08]
Christmas Past - for organ solo (1989, rev. 2012) [8:47]
Epiphany (1995) [3:54]
Edington Service (2005) [10:33]
God be in my head (2001) [2:20]
Our faith is a light (2004) [5:53]
*Finn Lacey (treble); Jonathan Vaughn (organ)
Wells Cathedral Choir/Matthew Owens.
rec. 12-13, 19-20 June, 2012, The Cathedral Church of St Andrew, Wells, Somerset. DDD
Texts and English translations included
HYPERION CDA67909 [73:00]

In the first paragraph of his booklet note Andrew Stewart has this to say about the music on this disc: “The works recorded here arise with strength from rich cultural and spiritual soil while challenging the often cosy and conservative tastes of Choral Evensong addicts. Above all, they connect directly with the ritual of the Anglican liturgy and, beyond that, the vast mythos of Christian communal worship, encompassing the particular qualities of the buildings and choirs for which they were written and deepening the universal tradition of music as sounded symbol.”Leaving aside the slightly unfair sideswipe atChoral Evensong addicts”, by the time I’d finished listening to this latest CD from Mathew Owens and his able and enterprising choir I felt Mr Stewart’s summary was a pretty accurate one.
There is some highly original music here but one thing - of many - that I like about it is that the originality isn’t originality for its own sake and doesn’t leave the listener behind. I think it helps enormously that Miss Bingham is a singer-composer; she studied singing as well as composition at the Royal Academy of Music and she spent several years as a member of the BBC Singers. This isn’t the first CD devoted to her choral music. Naxos released a CD in 2007 (review) and in 2009 there followed a disc from Signum Classics (review); I don’t believe I’ve heard the latter disc. This present disc, unlike the others, focuses largely on her church music and there’s no duplication with the previous releases.
Andrew Stewart’s comment about the music relating to buildings for which it was written is nowhere better illustrated than in the Missa Brevis ‘Awake my soul’. This piece - and The Shepherd - was written to mark the 50th anniversary of the re-consecration of the Parish Church in Bromley, Kent, which was destroyed in 1941 during the Blitz and rebuilt after World War II. Bingham’s music relates to the timeline of the destruction and rebuilding so the Kyrie reflects sorrow at the destruction; the succinct Gloria reflects the determination and renewed confidence that brought about the reconstruction; the Sanctus, in the composer’s words, “enshrines the solemnity of the new church’s consecration”; in the Agnus the process of forgiving enemies is reflected. Despite these direct and very specific associations the Mass is emphatically not a pièce d’occasion and is a most worthwhile work for regular liturgical use though, clearly, it will need a good choir to do it justice.
The opening and closing works on the programme were composed for Wells Cathedral. Our faith is a light was written for the celebration of the tenth anniversary of the first admission of girl choristers at the cathedral. Appropriately the 2012 cohort of girl choristers join the male Vicars Choral for this piece - elsewhere the top line is taken by the boy trebles. Our faith is a light is an impressive, ecstatic piece but I think the canticles that comprise the Wells Service are even more original - and important. I say ‘important’ because one doesn’t hear the alternative Evensong Canticles too often - perhaps because there aren’t too many good settings of them? The canticles in question are Psalm 98 (‘O sing unto the Lord a new song’) and Psalm 67 (‘God, be merciful unto us, and bless us’) which can be sung in place of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis. Bingham’s response to these texts is very original, especially in the case of Ps. 98. One might expect a joyful, extrovert setting of these words but instead the music is thoughtful and, for the most part, meditative though briefly it does become louder and more urgent in tone midway through. The doxology is gentle and contemplative. Ps. 67 receives a strongly rhythmical and assertive setting yet even here towards the end, at the words ‘Then shall the earth bring forth her increase’ the music becomes quietly prayerful which paves the way for a reprise of the doxology; here the material is the same as in Ps. 98 but the scoring is different.
There is a setting of the ‘Mag’ and Nunc’ later in the programme in the shape of the canticles which Judith Bingham wrote for the fiftieth Erdington Festival of Music within the Liturgy in 2005. These are in Latin and Bingham apparently sought to create a mood that harked back to the early Christian church. One remarkable feature in these very imaginative canticles is that in the Magnificat the organ accompaniment is confined to the pedals, creating a most interesting, almost primitive effect.
Jesum quaeritis Nazarenum is taken from a larger work, The Ivory Tree, written in 2002-4 for St, Edmundsbury Cathedral. The extract here recorded has been revised for treble solo with organ and Finn Lacey sings it very well indeed. Ave verum corpus is both interesting and unexpected. We’re all familiar with Mozart’s classic setting of the same words, which is calm and devotional. Bingham’s setting is very different; where Mozart’s music - and that of some other composers who have set the text - is serene Bingham’s music is troubled and unquiet and the rhythms, says Andrew Stewart, “suggest the weary tread of Jesus on the road to the cross.” Judith Bingham has identified, very rightly, that the majority of the text refers to the Passion and Crucifixion so her response to the text is completely justified.
The only music on the disc for which I struggle to raise much enthusiasm is Christmas Past. These four short movements began life as children’s piano pieces - though aspects of them would challenge young players, I’m sure. They’re presented here in a brand-new re-working for organ. Snippets from popular carols keep cropping up but I have to say that I didn’t think the music was desperately interesting. That’s no reflection on the playing of Jonathan Vaughn, by the way.
That aside the music on this disc is consistently interesting and rewarding. It receives splendid advocacy from these Wells musicians. The choir sing this demanding music with great skill and assurance while Jonathan Vaughn is on top form at the organ console. The sound is excellent. I’ve mentioned Andrew Stewart’s notes several times: they’re exemplary, mixing enthusiasm for the music, useful information and perceptive comment in just the right quantities. Matthew Owens and his choir already have to their credit a significant list of albums of music by contemporary British composers, including Geoffrey Burgon (review), Bob Chilcott (review), Jonathan Dove (review), Kenneth Leighton (review), James MacMillan (review) and William Mathias (review). This new recording is a notable and welcome addition to what I hope is a continuing series.
John Quinn