Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)
My Lovely one [3.05]
God is gone up [4.55]
Welcome sweet and sacred feast [7.36]
Let us now praise famous men [3.11]
Lo the full final sacrifice [15.15]
Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
I sing of a maiden that is makeless [4.56]
This worldes joie [6.41]
John IRELAND (1879-1962)
Greater Love hath no man [6.18]
Ex ore innocentum [3.44]
Te Deum in F [7.29]
The Choir of Westminster Abbey/James O’Donnell
rec. Westminster Abbey, February 2016
HYPERION CDA68167 [73.35]
Anglo-Catholic John Ireland spent twenty-two years immersed in the music of the church at St Luke's, Chelsea, and his attendance there encouraged him to contribute music for the Anglican liturgy. The anthem, ‘Greater love hath no man’ was commissioned in 1912 and was intended as a meditation for Passiontide. It draws its text from a compilation of passages from 'Daily Light on the Daily Path’, a series of booklets containing Bible readings that Ireland used regularly.
The work gained initial acceptance and with the outbreak of war in 1914, Ireland found it becoming even more popular. Set for treble and baritone soloists with SATB divisi and organ, for me the piece becomes alive, following the section for treble and baritone beginning "that we being dead to sins", where the music starts to soar away from the contemplative, with the organ trumpeting its presence. Both soloists are very good indeed, the treble having a very pure tone, though occasionally and very briefly sounding a little fragile.
The next piece by Ireland is a choral song 'ex ore innocentum', set for boys voices with treble soloist. The booklet says that Ireland “chose to couch this setting in the richer, post romantic palette of his secular music”, and I can hear what the writer means.
The last work by him included on this well filled disc is a setting of the Te Deum (in F), composed in 1907, when he was 28. It opens with a broad, quite memorable theme, which sounds as though it comes from an earlier era. Stanford was one of Ireland’s teachers (who did he not teach?) and one can hear the influence here. It is composed for full choir with no solo parts and alternates a vigorous, celebratory style with the the contemplative and lyrical.
I tend to think of Arnold Bax in terms of his large orchestral output, in which he demonstrates his absolute mastery of orchestration. He also sometimes demonstrates a marked ability to write effective, memorable music, but can also present the listener with an overabundance of complex themes in one work, and I can point to the fourth symphony as being a particularly diffuse example. Here his music consists of two very short pieces: 'I sing of a maiden that is makeless' and ‘This worldes joie'. Both are for unaccompanied choir and the booklet informs me that “his a cappella works have a fecundity which places them at the very summit of unaccompanied English choral music of the twentieth century”.
'I sing of a maiden' is a short setting of a 15th century verse - a carol I suppose - in praise of The Virgin. It sounds to me to be quite chromatic and complex in its five minute length, indeed the technically detailed booklet refers to Bax's allusion to assorted 16th century polyphonic techniques, subtly modified by his kaleidoscopic vocabulary of chromatic harmony.
The other work, 'This worldes joie' was performed at Bax's memorial service at St.Martin's-in-the-Fields. Despite its title, it is a setting of a gloomy piece of 13th century verse on the transitory nature of earthly happiness, and a request to Jesus for protection from hell. Like 'I sing of a maiden', it is a chromatic piece and its complexity must make it ferociously difficult to sing. Indeed I can only wonder at the sheer technique of these singers, although their virtuosity does not make the music particularly memorable, even after three or four hearings.
The disc begins with several pieces by Gerald Finzi, whose Dies Natalis is a wonderful inspiration - probably my favourite choral/vocal composition by this composer. I approached these works wondering, whether I would be moved by them to anything like the same degree. Well, I cannot claim to have been, despite the virtuosity of the singers. The longest work, 'Lo the full final sacrifice' was the first of his works to be completed after the war, and was written as a result of a commission. Finzi had to work quickly, because he was only given the commission after Alan Rawsthorne let down the commissioner. I think that it is regarded as being his most important work in its class and is a setting of the Eucharist, taken from hymns by St Thomas Aquinas. In it Finzi harnesses neo-baroque techniques together with an almost instrumental handling of the voices, which fuse to create a subtle yet poetically powerful whole, varying from moments of hushed prayer to outpourings choral tone supported by a largely reticent organ, with the treble voices pushing through with laser-like focus. The individual solo sections are very well done and the section beginning "O soft, self wounding Pelican" is a tenor/base duet. Particularly beautiful is the very end, where "Amen" is sung repeatedly, in eight parts. I note that Finzi orchestrated the work in 1947, and I have read that the organ was not his favourite instrument. There are sections where the organ - very well recorded - indulges in quiet subterranean rumblings, either by itself or underpinning the singers and I can imagine the same passages appealing to me rather more if scored for strings or small orchestra. Occasionally he allows the organ a greater say - in the passage where the text begins: "Rise, Royal Sion, rise and sing", it gradually provides a more full accompaniment. The work as a whole is probably the most memorable piece by Finzi on this disc, and I am tempted to pursue a recording of the version with orchestra.
The next longest work presented here, at ten minutes, is his Magnificat, an American commission, in which he again uses neo-baroque techniques. Once again the singing is splendid with superb impact en masse and the organ has a greater prominence than in ‘Lo, the full, final sacrifice’, perhaps unsurprisingly, given the celebratory nature of the piece.
The three pieces forming Finzi's Op.27 open the CD. All are for SATB divisi with organ and I would be being untruthful if I said that they made much of an impression. The most attractive anthem of the three is the opening 'My lovely one', written for a wedding, quiet but passionate. The most striking is the second, where one is abruptly awakened by organ fanfares forming the beginning of a celebratory piece for St.Cecilia's day. The third is almost as long as the first two combined and was a BBC commission. Perhaps much repeated listening would help imprint its structure and material on my mind, but so far, I regret to say, that has not been the case.
Finzi's final contribution to this disk is his setting of 'Let us now praise famous men' - a work which might have been a bit more celebratory in its music than appears to be the case. Despite this, or possibly because of it, there are several Finzi fingerprints present, which make it a pleasant listening experience.
Recording in the very ample, highly reverberant acoustic of Westminster Abbey must present significant challenges to performers and engineers alike, and when a choir is the subject with an organ accompanying them, I suspect that the challenges abound. Hyperion's engineers have recorded the choir in this acoustic several times in the past to much acclaim. They succeed here as well, and if I have occasionally found my attention wandering when listening, I suspect that was due to music that I sometimes found uninspiring, rather than the recording quality and the music-making.
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