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The Restoration and Georgian Anthem
The Band of Instruments
Paul Plummer, Christopher Hughes, Timothy Morris, Andrew Smith, Gary Cooper, Ryan Wigglesworth (organ)
Choir of New College/Edward Higginbottom
rec. Chapel of New College, Oxford; dates not given
Full English and Latin texts included
CRD 5009 [5 CDs: 346:24]

CRD have usefully gathered together five discs originally released separately, which collate various compositions by some of the most prominent names in Church music within a period of nearly two centuries, from 1660 to the 1850s. That very little of the music of that period is featured in Anglican liturgy today is testament more to the greater regard seemingly given at the moment to the Elizabethan/Jacobean, and high Victorian periods on either side of it, rather than any intrinsic defects or weaknesses in the music itself, and the period is no less fascinating for all its comparative obscurity. Doubtless the towering presence of Handel has overshadowed so much English music of the long 18th century (for want of a simpler concept). However, where his idiom is apparently heard in these discs, it is generally the case that he learnt English ecclesiastical choral traditions from the music of composers such as Croft and Greene, and integrated that into the idiom he cultivated for the choral epics of his oratorios, rather than the other way around.

There may be considerable justification for the German jibe that England was the land without music, but that was never exactly true within the context of the Anglican Church at least, even if the demands and expectations of ‘quires and places where they sing’ within the Prayer-Book-regulated Church of England were less ambitious than the musical traditions of courts and ecclesiastical centres elsewhere in Europe. The comparative disregard this repertoire has suffered may be explained by the fact that it did not always keep pace with musical developments in other countries and tended to imitate older models instead, such as the form of the verse anthem which Purcell had brought to perfection, or the older style polyphony of composers such as Byrd and Tomkins at the turn of the 17th century. But it is also telling that, although Purcell is by far the most famous composer represented in this collection, his sizeable body of ecclesiastical music remains rather neglected by church choirs today, presumably on account of the fairly small role given to the choral forces as compared with the soloists.

On the Purcell disc, the solo contributions to the anthems recorded here tend to be downplayed by the soloists, leaving it to the choir to project their interjections more fully, particularly in the more sustained choral setting of ‘My Heart is Inditing’, written for the coronation of James II. Where the vocal soloists sing in twos or threes together in other anthems, they create a softly cohesive sound which complements the fuller choral texture, rather than opposing it, as in ‘Rejoice in the Lord Always’, and ‘My Beloved Spake’, though in the latter the lack of contrast becomes a problem since the vivid text and word-setting surely demand more bite. Given the extended bass solos of ‘O Sing unto the Lord’, written for the noted and virtuosic singer John Gostling, it is odd that no fewer than three bass soloists from the New College choir are used among its different sections, which results in a lack of tonal unity, one soft-toned at first, and a subsequent soloist bringing more gravitas. The Band of Instruments bring considerable charm and character to their accompaniments, for example a palpable stateliness at the opening of ‘My Heart is Inditing’, the bittersweet harmonies in the string symphony at the opening of ‘Praise the Lord’ are not overdone, and the descending scales of ‘Rejoice in the Lord Always’ which give its nickname the ‘Bell Anthem’ are integrated within the instrumental texture rather than unduly emphasised.

As late as the 1760s William Boyce was still writing verse anthems as a matter of course, and on the disc devoted to a varied selection of his works, the interaction between soloists on the one hand, and choir or organ on the other, is taut and lively. Not least that is due to the singers’ consummate enunciation of the words set, such as in the madrigalian passing around of a little turning motif among the soloists at the beginning of ‘O give thanks’, and the precise handling of the tricky sequence of syllables in the opening of ‘The Lord is King, be the people never so impatient’. The concluding choral Hallelujahs of three of the anthems are sung with suitable ebullience, whilst in the other anthems evoking an earlier period of Renaissance polyphony, Higginbottom draws out a broader, more rarefied sound from the choir. The organ accompaniments in such cases are more restrained to allow the serene choral textures greater prominence, but the choir is permitted the use of some vibrato for greater expressive effect.

The fifth and last disc takes the survey into the 19th century, with a variety of composers rather than focussing on a single on. The verse anthem still informs some of the compositions featured here, though the alternation of solo and choral sections, along with a contrast of forms such as recitative and aria, is used more flexibly than in earlier examples and show a welcome development of the genre. Thomas Walmisley’s ‘Remember, O Lord’ and Samuel Wesley’s ‘All go unto one place’ look ahead to the masterpieces of the type by the latter’s son, Samuel Sebastian. The trebles here are not always quite as well drilled as in the other discs of this set, but again their use of vibrato is affecting, especially in the moving ‘Call to remembrance’ by Jonathan Battishill. The only setting of that staple of choral evensong, the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, featured here is the familiar one in D minor by Walmisley. With its narrative drama and vigour it is often esteemed as setting a standard to which many other subsequent composers of church music rose, but here Higginbottom secures a certain gracefulness from the choir, even in the bolder unison musical lines, which looks back to the music of the Georgian age, rather than forwards to the more sensational musical effects of Walmisley’s Victorian successors.
The other two discs are given over to Maurice Greene and William Croft respectively. Croft’s music tends to be Purcellian in character, whilst Greene’s represents a more up to date style, similar to his contemporary and rival Handel. Greene does not attain the same level of sustained invention as the latter, but there is much that is enjoyable and memorable in his music for which the New College choir here make a fine case as far from deserving the near-oblivion into which it seems to have been consigned. The two well-known exceptions ‘Lord let me know mine end’ and ‘Thou visitest the earth’ are featured here, the former lucid and dignified in its sober introspection, and the latter lively enough, though Toby Spence’s solo is somewhat unfocused in tone and with ornaments which feel forced. It would have been interesting had Higginbottom set the piece in context and recorded the whole anthem from which it is seemingly universally sundered. It is also instructive to compare the opening of the penitential anthem ‘Have mercy upon me’ with ‘Erbarme dich’ from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion: both are set for alto solo in B minor, and the haunting performance here makes on one wonder why we do not hear choirs sing the Greene anthem during Lent. The sumptuous eight-part texture of ‘How long with thou forget me Lord’ would stimulate choirs and congregations in equal measure if sung with such spirit and spaciousness as under Higginbottom.

The disc of Croft’s anthems bring out similar virtues from the choir of New College, being variously jaunty and lively, or plangent and poised in the a cappella sections. But throughout the choir remain full-voiced and enthusiastic about the music they sing, with only the soloists in ‘I will sing unto the Lord’ lacking charisma. The sighing ebb and flow which the choir sustain throughout ‘Hear my prayer’ makes the work a worthy, if not equal, counterpart to Purcell’s famous setting of similar words. All discs in this CRD set except the last include some examples of their respective composer’s organ music. Although they break no new ground, the pieces are performed sensitively and intelligently.

Taken together, the set will clearly give much pleasure to lovers of Anglican Church music, either to remind them of a fairly obscure period in its history, or to fill a gap in their knowledge. Although the discs were first recorded at various times – oddly, unspecified as to when in the booklet notes, which are otherwise informative and detailed – and the choir was made up of different members in each case as a result, there is an impressive consistency in the choir’s general approach to the music. No doubt that is attributable to Higginbottom’s engagement with this music over a long period of time and the rapport he formed with the ensemble. The recorded sound is also consistent, though it may cause some frustration in that the choir seems to be placed at some distance in the acoustic ambience, with the organ more recessed still, such that the volume needs to be turned up quite high in order to detect the layers and nuances of the music. But it captures something of the experience of listening to this music in the wider space of one of England’s great ecclesiastical institutions, and reminding us that it forms part of a still-living tradition.

Curtis Rogers
 
Contents
CD 1 [65:17]
Henry PURCELL (c.1659-1695)

My Heart is Inditing
O Sing unto the Lord
Rejoice in the Lord Always
Voluntary in D minor for organ
Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem
My Beloved Spake
CD 2  [67:13]
William CROFT (1678-1727)

O Lord God of my salvation
We will rejoice in thy salvation
O Lord I will praise thee
Voluntary in A minor for organ
Hear my prayer
God is gone up with a merry noise
I will sing unto the Lord
Voluntary in D major for organ
We wait for thy loving kindness
O Lord rebuke me not
CD 3 [71:18]
Maurice GREENE (1696-1755)

Lord let me know mine end
The King shall rejoice
How long wilt though forget me, O Lord?
Voluntary No. 1 in G major for organ
God is our hope and strength
Have mercy upon me, O God
Voluntary No. 11 in B minor for organ
Let God arise
O clap your hands together
Thou visitest the earth
CD 4 [75:53]
William BOYCE (1711-1779)

O where shall wisdom be found?
Wherewithal shall a young man
I have surely built thee an house
Voluntary IV for organ
O praise the Lord
Turn thee unto e
O give thanks
Voluntary I for organ
By the waters of Babylon
The Lord is King
Voluntary VII for organ
CD 5 [66:43]
The Georgian Anthem

Samuel WESLEY (1766-1837)
Exultate Deo
Constitues eos principes
William CROTCH (1775-1847)
How dear are they counsels
Jonathan BATTISHILL (1738-1801)
Call to remembrance
Thomas WALMISLEY (1814-1856)
Remember, O Lord
Thomas ATTWOOD (1765-1838)
Come, Holy Ghost
Samuel WESLEY
All go unto one place
Jonathan BATTISHILL
O Lord look down from Heaven
William CROTCH
The Lord, even the most might God
Thomas WALMISLEY
Evening Service in D minor

 

 




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