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David BEDNALL (b. 1979)
Stabat Mater (2015) [57:31]
Marian Suite for violin and organ (2015) [12:10]
Ave Maria (2015) [4:23]
Jennifer Pike (violin); David Bednall (organ)
Benenden Chapel Choir/Edward Whiting
rec. 19-21 June, 22 December 2015, Chapel of St Augustine, Tonbridge School, Kent
Latin text and English translation included

David Bednall’s music is faring well not just in live performances but also on CD. This is the fifth disc devoted to his music that I’ve heard. Previously, and in addition to a good number of individual pieces on mixed recital discs, I’ve heard two CDs of his music by Wells Cathedral Choir (review ~ review), his substantial Christmas piece Welcome all Wonders (review), and his Requiem (review). In the context of this latest recording the Requiem is the most relevant because it was written for and recorded by Edward Whiting and the Chamber Choir of St Mary’s School, Calne. In 2012 Whiting moved to another school, Benenden, as Director of Music and there too he has a very fine girls’ choir. It is for Whiting and the Benenden choir that Bednall has composed his large-scale setting of the Stabat Mater. As was the case with the Requiem the new work is scored for high voices and organ but this time there’s a crucial addition in the form of a solo violin.

The thirteenth century poem, Stabat Mater, attributed to the Franciscan, Jacopone da Todi, is concerned with the anguish of Mary at the foot of the Cross. It consists of twenty stanzas, each of three lines. The poem has inspired many composers, though not all have set it complete. In his comprehensive booklet note David Bednall cites the setting by Herbert Howells as his prime influence. Bednall has organised his work into eleven sections, the first of which is an instrumental Prelude. The score is divided into three parts, the first of which comprises movements 1-5 and the third consists of movements 7-11 although the work plays continuously.

The music is accessible and vividly communicative. As is frequently the case with this composer the independent organ part is crucial and very demanding. With the exception of the ninth movement, which is for unaccompanied choir, the organ plays almost continuously throughout the work. Bednall plays commandingly and with great imagination when it comes to registrations. The use of the violin is a bit more selective though the part is still a very large one. Bednall points out that the violin is often associated with Mary’s sorrow. Though I’m not sure that the part was written specifically for her Jennifer Pike represents luxury casting on this recording and her performance is outstanding – as you’d expect from an artist of her calibre. Quite a lot of the choir’s music is either in unison or in two parts but don’t let that fool you into thinking that the vocal music isn’t challenging. For one thing Bednall’s piece is a real test of stamina: once the Prelude is past the choir sings for some fifty-two minutes with only short breaks. Secondly, the choral music sounds demanding and this score proves that passages of unison singing can be highly effective. The Benenden choir here number 28 girls with an age range of 13 to 18. I’m full of admiration for the sheer quality of their singing – the tone is consistently fresh and appealing – as well as the discipline, commitment and intelligence with which they sing this challenging piece. This is clearly a very fine choir indeed.

Inevitably, given the subject matter, a lot of the music is either dramatic or sorrowful – or both. It seems to me that Bednall’s response to the text is very acute, not only in the way that he sets the words but also in the manner in which he colours the instrumental parts and makes both instruments into important protagonists. The contrast between the power and, often, the dark tones of the organ on the one hand and the fresh edge of the girls’ voices works really well. The violin complements the singers and offers further contrast with the organ.

The Prelude sets the tone for much of what is to follow, not least because it supplies a good deal of thematic material which recurs elsewhere. The first choral movement (‘Stabat mater dolorosa’) has considerable tension in it. The next section (‘O quam tristis’) is less tense; there’s rather more lyricism here, accentuated by the involvement of the violin. Here quite a lot of the choral writing is in unison which makes the bursts of harmony all the more effective. The music of movement four (‘Quis est homo’) is more dramatic and agitated; as Bednall says, “there is something of the crowd (or ‘turba’) here, and the feeling of a gathering horror.” A doleful violin solo leads straight into the short fifth movement (‘Vidit suum dulcem’). This stanza of the poem covers the actual death of Christ and Bednall says that the movement is a “moment of utter stillness … the emotional low point of the work.”

The sixth Movement (‘Eia, Mater, fons amoris’) is designated as Part II of the work and there’s a good reason for that. The two stanzas of the poem which are set in this movement are a kind of pivot in the poem. Up to this point the poet has been describing Christ’s Crucifixion and his mother’s anguish on witnessing it. Now the focus changes and the stanzas that follow take the form of an extended prayer addressed to the Virgin. So Bednall’s sixth movement is a “warm and loving hymn to Mary”. Here, the violin, usually associated with Mary’s sorrow, takes on a lovely tender role.

We revert to drama at the start of Part III. In ‘Sancta Mater’ the poet expresses a desire to share in Christ’s suffering and Bednall sets the words to very powerful music for both voices and organ; the girls are terrific hereabouts. Movement 8 (‘Fac me tecum’) is introduced by a lengthy lament for violin and the instrument’s keening music continues once the choir begins to sing. This is pretty stark music and it’s significant that the organ contribution is restricted to a subdued drone in the background. The ninth movement (‘Virgo virginum’) is for unaccompanied four-part choir – the only movement in which both instruments are silent. This provides a much-needed interlude of repose and reflection.

However, the organ loudly shatters the repose at the opening of the next movement (‘Fac me plagis vulnerat’). The choral part is urgent and underpinned by driving organ figurations. In due course the violin joins in forcefully and eventually the organ attains a terrifying climax after which the fragile sound of the violin is heard all alone, as if on the edge of a precipice. Then a solo voice, backed quietly by the choir, is heard recalling the music of ‘Stabat mater’. After this comes the final movement (‘Christe, cum sit hinc exire’) in which at first an uneasy tranquillity is attained. When the violin begins to play, however, there’s more warmth in the music and that’s certainly the case by the time the choir skings the final stanza (‘Quando corpus morietur’). Peace is finally achieved.

This is a fine and eloquent setting of Stabat Mater and it’s a work that will surely enhance still further David Bednall’s reputation, especially since it appears on disc in such a superb performance. When I reviewed his Requiem I expressed the hope that one day he might consider an alternative version for SATB choir so as to make it available to more choirs. I’ll refrain from such a suggestion this time. The poem is, after all, about the anguish of a woman and so high voices seem fitting. In any case, even more than in the Requiem it’s quite evident that in Stabat Mater the composer had in mind the distinctive timbre of high voices. I hope other choirs will take up the work but, my goodness, they’ll have to be good choirs.

The other two pieces on the disc were composed specifically for this recording. The Marian Suite is cast in three short movements, the first two of which are quite gentle, the third rather more lively. The setting of Ave Maria is for the same forces as the Stabat Mater and it’s relaxed and warm in tone.

The recorded sound is excellent, achieving a fine balance between the three elements of choir, violin and organ. The documentation is comprehensive.

John Quinn



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