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Anthems and Motets of the English Romantic Tradition
Samuel Sebastian WESLEY (1810-1876)
Ascribe unto the Lord (1851) [13:02]
Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Three Latin Motets (1905): Justorum animae, Op. 38 No. 1 Coelos Ascendit Hodie, Op. 38 No. 2 Beati quorum via, Op. 38 No. 3 (1905) [8:16]
For lo, I raise up, Op. 145 (1914) [8:05]
Edward W. NAYLOR (1867-1934)
Vox dicentis: Clama (1911) [8:21]
Edward C. BAIRSTOW (1874-1946)
Blessed City, heavenly Salem (1913) [8:13]
Let all mortal flesh keep silence (1925) [3:23]
Edgar BAINTON (1880-1956)
And I saw a new heaven (1928) [4:27]
William H. HARRIS (1883-1973)
Bring us, O Lord God (1959) [3:41]
Piers KENNEDY (b.1991)
The St Peter’s College Grace [2:46]
The Choir of St. Peter’s College, Oxford/David Quinn, Roger Allen
rec. St. Peter’s College Chapel, Oxford, 17-19 June 2013
OXRECS OXCD121 [60:12]
This CD serves as a perfect introduction to Anglican cathedral music for the century between 1851 and 1959. There are a number of well-known anthems and motets by Stanford and Bainton and some less-familiar works by Naylor and Harris. All are superbly sung.
I know I will be accused of being a philistine but I have never got to grips with Samuel Sebastian Wesley’s anthems. I recognize the history of how he was the grandson of the hymn-writer Charles Wesley, how he was a big hitter in mid-Victorian cathedral life and how he was organist at Hereford, Exeter, Gloucester and Winchester Cathedrals. I understand that he wrote largely for the Church of England and is still revered in ‘choirs and places where they sing.’ It is just that I usually find his music exceedingly dry and dusty: it is sub-Mendelssohn. The present offering is one of the composer’s verse anthems. Ascribe unto the Lord was written in Winchester during 1851 and is a long, complex piece. The music is divided into sections that include recitative, solo voice ensembles and full choir. I do not deny that there are some gorgeous moments in the progress of this music. The liner-notes are correct in noting the lyrical quality of much of the part-writing. The big advance that Wesley had made on much contemporary music is that he moved beyond an interminable succession of pedantic four-part harmony and introduced effective counterpoint and a satisfactory use of dissonance. So really, if I am honest, I did enjoy this anthem. Certainly it is beautifully rendered here by all the performers.
I am on much more familiar territory with Charles Villiers Stanford’s Three Latin Motets dating from 1905. These are perfectly balanced pieces: models of their kind. Justorum animae is well-considered. It is in three parts with the middle section musically reflecting the notion of malice. The outer sections are reflective in their consideration of security in the hand of God and the ascription of peace. The sheer excitement engendered by Coelos ascendit hodie (Today, Jesus Christ has ascended in the heavens) is made clear by Stanford’s use of a double choir with antiphonal exchanges. The final motet is the more restrained Beati quorum via (Blessed are those that are undefiled) and makes use of ‘sonata form’ in its structure. The closing bars are near-perfect in their effect. These three motets were published in 1905: it is believed that they were composed much earlier.
Stanford’s anthem For lo, I raise up was written in 1914 and provides a commentary on the horrors of ‘mechanized warfare’ that was about to engulf the world. The words that Stanford has set, from the prophetical book of Habakkuk, balances a frightening description of the destructive power of mankind’s pride with a vision of hard-won peace and silence in the Lord’s holy temple. The picture of eagles and horsemen storming through the nations are contrasted with a message of hope - ‘We shall not die’ and the promise that the ‘Earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord...’ It is surely one of Stanford’s most inspired choral works.
I had not heard Edward Naylor’s (1867-1934) motet Vox Dicentis (A voice is crying) before. This is a beautiful and demanding setting of the Old Testament lesson appointed for St John the Baptist’s day (June 24). It is an intricate, multi-faceted work that explores a number of choral textures and effects including fugue, a ‘fanfare’ and a restrained pastoral conclusion. Naylor was organist at a variety of London churches before returning to the organ loft at Emanuel College, Cambridge, where he remained until his death.
Edward Bairstow was organist at York Minster for many years (1913-1946): on his death he was succeeded by Francis Jackson. The anthem Blessed City, heavenly Salem was composed in the year he went to York. The melodic material of this work is derived from plainsong however it is elaborated and supported by an almost ‘orchestrally conceived’ organ accompaniment. The other piece by Bairstow, Let all mortal flesh keep silence (1925) is much more undemonstrative and echoes all that is best in English cathedral music.
Edgar Bainton’s anthem, And I saw a new Heaven which is based on part of Revelation, Chapter 21, is so well known in cathedrals and church choir circles that it needs little comment. St Peter’s Chapel Choir gives this beautiful work a definitive performance. It is one of the most inspiring and uplifting anthems ever written.
Most of the texts set in this CD are bible-based. William Harris turns to the pages of the metaphysical poet John Donne for his inspiration. Bring us, O Lord God our last awakening is a beautiful meditation on death and the promised resurrection of the body into a place where there are ‘no fears nor hopes, no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity’. It is a faultless synthesis of music and words.
The final work does not quite fit in with the time-frame of the rest of the CD. Piers Kennedy was born in 1991 and was a chorister at Llandaff Cathedral and latterly a choral scholar at St Peter’s College. The undated St Peter’s Grace was composed for use at Formal Hall and other college events. It has been included as a fine example of the ‘creative work of St Peter’s musicians’.
The outstanding performance of the organ scholars, Mary Ann Wooton and David Quinn must not be ignored. The instrument was built by Father Henry Willis in 1875 and enlarged in 1889. It was rebuilt and restored in 2003. The sound of this CD is excellent: the liner-notes are succinct and include the texts, and where appropriate, the translations.
I thoroughly enjoyed this CD … including the Wesley. The Choir of St. Peter’s College are inspirational and sympathetic in all these works.