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REVIEW
RECORDING OF THE MONTH
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A Voice from Heaven - British Choral Masterpieces
Sir William HARRIS (1883-1973)
Bring us, O Lord God (1959) [4:28]
Sir James MACMILLAN (b. 1959)
Bring us, O Lord God (2010) [5:04]
Sir William HARRIS
Faire is the Heaven
(1925) [5:16]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Take him, earth, for cherishing (1964) [8:30]
Sir John TAVENER (1944-2013)
Take him, earth, for cherishing (2008) [4:06]
Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
I heard a voice from Heaven (1889) [4:36]
Herbert HOWELLS
I heard a voice from Heaven
(1932/33) [4:43]
Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988)
Drop, drop, slow tears (1961) [3:07]
Sir Hubert PARRY (1848-1918)
Lord, let me know mine end (1916/18) [9:46]
Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD
Justorum animae
(1888) [3:08]
Sir Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989)
Justorum animae (1963) [3:36]
Herbert MURRILL (1909-1952)
The souls of the righteous (1949) [2:11]
Thomas HEWITT JONES (b. 1984)
Drop, drop, slow tears [3:21]
Sir John TAVENER Song for Athene [(1993) 6:29]
Choir of The King’s Consort/Robert King
rec. 25-27 April 2016, St Jude’s Church, Hampstead, London
Texts included
VIVAT 113 [68:28]

Quite a number of the pieces in this compelling programme from Robert King and the Choir of The King’s Consort are very familiar and appear frequently on CD. What is slightly less usual on a disc is to encounter several examples of a second setting, perhaps less familiar, of the same text by a different composer. Moreover, several of the settings are placed on adjacent tracks, which piques my interest further. I’m mildly surprised that the two settings of Drop, drop, slow tears were not juxtaposed in this way but that’s a small point; in fact I re-ordered the tracks so as to listen to the piece by Thomas Hewitt Jones immediately after the Leighton.

In his extensive and very valuable notes Robert King explains that for this repertoire he sought to get the singers to create ‘all the colours of a vocal orchestra’. In pursuit of this goal he arranged the choir in a rather unusual way with the basses on the front row in the centre of the ensemble and with the sopranos ranged behind them and raised slightly above them. Thus, physically and vocally King sought to make the bass line the foundation of the choral sound. There are 28 singers in the choir (8/6/6/8).

The opening piece provides a sterling test of King’s quest for the sound of a vocal orchestra. The rich romantic hues of Harris’s masterly Bring us, O Lord God are realised in a very special way here; the choir produces a lovely, warm sound yet one that allows clarity among the various vocal lines. This expansive piece comes off quite splendidly and King’s vocal orchestra is up and running. I don’t think I’ve heard the James MacMillan setting of the same text before but that’s my loss. Often, especially at the beginning and end, the textures are full and warm though the composer’s typically searching approach to harmony is much in evidence. Frequently MacMillan repeats a word two or three times to give it added emphasis and during the piece there are several very emphatic climaxes. I think MacMillan’s work complements the Harris very well indeed but, equally, it shows how far British choral composition has travelled in the five decades that separate the two pieces.

The settings of Take him, earth, for cherishing were both written for memorial services: Howells was commissioned to write his to commemorate President Kennedy; Tavener wrote his to honour his brother, Roger. As an aside, it’s interesting to note that Tavener sets just one stanza of Prudentius yet the duration of his piece is about half the length of time that it takes Howells to set no less than eight stanzas. The Howells is a magnificent musical statement of patrician grief combined with anguished melancholy. Robert King and his singers give a wonderful, intense account of it. Tavener relies on much more repetition; indeed, he uses an echo choir for precisely this function. The echo group is nicely distanced in this recording. The music of this eloquent piece is unhurried and noble.

Stanford’s I heard a voice from Heaven is a lovely, serene creation in which the indebtedness to Brahms, while evident, does not weigh the music down. Howells’ response to the same text forms the last movement of his ineffably beautiful Requiem. Here melancholy and ecstasy combine – though the latter attribute is more prominent. Though Robert King doesn’t say so in his note, this music – and indeed much of the rest of the Requiem - prefigures Howells’ intense, radiant masterpiece, Hymnus Paradisi.

Just as that Howells piece is the last movement from a larger work so too is Kenneth Leighton’s setting of Phineas Fletcher’s words, Drop, drop, slow tears. This comes from his cantata Crucifixus pro nobis. It’s a very beautiful, poignant piece of writing. Thomas Hewitt Jones’ much more recent response to the same words is a fine setting which certainly merits its inclusion in this company. I appreciate the harmonic sensitivity to the text in this piece.

We hear three settings of Justorum animae since Murrill’s The souls of the righteous sets in English the same verses from the Book of Wisdom that Stanford and Berkeley set in Latin – actually Murrill sets slightly more of the text. Stanford’s is the best-known of the three, I think, and rightly so for it’s a super piece, which Robert King appropriately describes as a ‘miniature jewel’. He and his choir give it a scrupulous performance. The Berkeley is no less lovely and no less deeply felt though the harmonic language is more astringent. Murrill’s beautiful little piece is mellifluous and consoling.

In addition to these various paired settings there are three standalone items, each one of them more than welcome. If my life depended on making a choice between Harris’s Bring us, O Lord God and Faire is the Heaven then I think John Donne's words and the sentiments they express would incline me towards the former but it’s a close thing. Faire is the Heaven, Harris’s miraculous Spencer setting is an extraordinarily sensuous creation – I agree with Robert King’s view that it is ‘ravishing’. It is magnificently done here - the two choirs nicely differentiated – and King achieves great clarity of texture. Lord, let me know mine end is, in my opinion, the finest of all among the six pieces that make up Parry’s Songs of Farewell. In this masterly and deeply-felt setting for double choir Parry is so responsive to the words. A really successful performance will make the most of the many contrasts in the music, such as the sense of awe at the words ‘I became dumb and opened not my mouth’, followed almost immediately by the vehemence at ‘Take thy plague away from me’. Judged by the way in which these contrasts are effected – and by many other yardsticks – this performance is most certainly a successful one. To conclude, King selects Tavener’s Song for Athene. Here the singing is marvellously controlled in the hushed opening lines; what I might term ‘peaceful tension’ is established. As a result the radiant, ecstatic outburst for the last line is all the more effective.

It’s fairly unusual to encounter the Choir of The King’s Consort in music such as this, at least on disc, though they have recently given us a very fine collection of music by Parry and Stanford (review). They do all the pieces on this new disc splendidly and I enjoyed both the performances per se and also the interesting choice of music.

The recording is in the very safe hands of Adrian Peacock (producer) and David Hinitt (engineer). It’s just possible that some listeners might feel the choir is a shade too forwardly recorded and might wish for a perspective that’s just a little bit more distant and with more ambience round the sound. I can only say that I liked the recorded sound very much. In particular, with music of this kind which often has complex textures, clarity of detail is vital and that’s been achieved here. For my money, the recording is a success. Robert King’s notes are elegant and informative; they convey his enthusiasm for the music almost as strongly as does his conducting of it.

The recording was sponsored by the distinguished baritone, David Wilson-Johnson in memory of his parents. It seems to me to constitute a very fitting musical memorial.

John Quinn

 

 




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