A Song of Farewell: Music of Mourning and Consolation
Orlando GIBBONS (1583-1625)
Drop, drop slow tears [2:00]
William WALTON (1902-1983)
A Litany: Drop, drop slow tears [4:25]
Robert WHITE (c.1538-1574)
Christe, qui lux es et dies [4:29]
James MACMILLAN (b.1959)
A Child’s Prayer [4:12]
John SHEPPARD (c.1515-1550)
In manus tuas [4:05]
Jonathan DOVE (b.1959)
Into Thy Hands [8:14]
Thomas MORLEY (1557/8-1602)
Funeral Sentences [10:16]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
They are at rest [3:31]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
C. Hubert H. PARRY (1848-1918)
Lord, Let me know mine end (from Songs of Farewell) [11:42]
Gabrieli Consort/Paul McCreesh
rec. Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral, 8-10 November 2009
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD281 [75:56]
This disc begins with the most beautiful performance Gibbons’ Drop, drop slow tears that I've ever heard. It’s significantly slower than most, but that makes it sound more than ever like a prayer, and the enveloping acoustic of Ely’s Lady Chapel makes it sound utterly other-worldly. This sets the tone for a disc that is meditative, prayerful, thoughtful and very, very beautiful.
Typically for Paul McCreesh’s Winged Lion recordings, it’s expertly curated, this time around the theme of loss and mourning, and it works magnificently. He often pairs an older work with a more modern one, and juxtaposing Gibbons' and Walton's setting of the same text, for example, is a stroke of genius. After the simple beauty of Gibbons, Walton's hanging discords and poignant harmonies seem to stab at the heart of grief and loss. What Gibbons depicts from a beauteous distance, Walton seems to plunge you into the midst of, in all its raw, passionate refusal to resolve. This track also made me glad that I was hearing adult sopranos. They bring a maturity, experience and involvement that only very few boys could manage, and that reaps benefits across the entire disc.
White's Christe, qui lux es et dies setting uses the familiar plainchant of the Evening Hymn as its basis, and the baritone line that sings the homophonic line seems to hang in the air, almost ominously. Alternative voices, however, harmonise with the whole choir, and the effect is marvellous, the full choir seeming to provide a more careful, introverted commentary on the sentiment of the Latin text. Sheppard's Tudor polyphony unfolds in seemingly endless melismas that unfurl in the acoustic with spiritual beauty, and Morley's Funeral Sentences are breathtaking in their intense simplicity.
The contemporary works are every bit as good. Macmillan's Child's Prayer sounds marvellous. Its gentle blanket of harmonies seems to emerge from nowhere, and the upper voices that lead the charge into the more urgent music of the latter half ring out like clarion calls, suggesting both the bliss and the apprehension hidden in the piece. It's a lovely illustration of the way music can say things that words never can. The unusual harmonies of Dove's Into thy hands have a tingly effect in this acoustic, and the music generates an electricity all of its own.
Elgar's They are at rest seems to be shot through with his own deeply felt Catholicism, helped by the fact that the text is by Cardinal Newman, and Parry's lush Edwardiana can seldom have sounded more convincing and more heartfelt (and less sentimental) than here.
Howells' haunting Requiem forms the centrepiece of the disc. We now know that it was written before the death of his son, Michael, but that the composer withheld it from publication until long afterwards, so many speculate that it came to be associated in Howells' mind with Michael's death. That lends the work a special poignancy, and the singers seem to inhabit that. The opening Salvator Mundi is full of haunted longing while, unlike the White setting, the 23rd Psalm seems to be most powerful during its unison moments. Both of the Requiem aeternam settings seems to revel in the foggy harmonies. The baritone soloist in Psalm 121 is marvellously rich, and the choir respond in kind. Then the final I heard a voice from heaven manages to pluck some consolation out of it all: the soloists are forthright and colourful, and the final choruses seem to set a lovely air of benediction over the whole thing.
I’m used to recordings of the highest quality from Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort, but I wasn’t prepared for just how moving I would find this one. It may have been recorded in 2009, but this is one of the most profound discs I’ve heard in all of 2015.
Nick Barnard ~ John