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A New Heaven
David Bednall & Rebecca Baker (organ)
Choir of The Queen’s College, Oxford / Owen Rees
rec. 4-6 January 2016, Church of St Michael and All Angels, Oxford; 12 March 2016, Chapel of Keble College, Oxford. DDD
Texts & English translations included SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD475 [78:17]
This latest release by Owen Rees and the Choir of The Queen’s College, Oxford was prompted by a sad event: the death of Dr Jackie Stedall (1950-2014), a colleague of Owen Rees at the College. At her funeral service, which she herself devised, there were readings from the Book of Revelation and also from ‘Jottings’ which she had made during her last illness. Some of those ‘Jottings’ have been set by Philip Cooke in one of three pieces commissioned for this recording; many of the other pieces use texts from Revelation.
It was a good idea to include some settings of the same text by two composers. James MacMillan’s Alpha and Omega has the same words as Bainton’s And I saw a new heaven. The Bainton piece comes from an earlier, more easeful age but is nonetheless a powerful response to the words from Revelation. In particular, there’s a memorable climax for choir and organ at the words ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.’ MacMillan’s piece, which is unaccompanied, opens and closes with majestic chordal writing which conveys the immensity of the Evangelist’s vision. The central section of the piece is much more urgent in pace and tone. The music is easier both to hear and, I should imagine, to perform than, say, his astonishing Stabat Mater, to which I’ve been listening recently but even so Alpha and Omega is no less eloquent and it commands the attention.
Another MacMillan piece is paired with a classic of the English church repertoire. His setting of Bring us, O Lord God is a more unsettled piece than the well-known composition by Sir William Harris. MacMillan treats John Donne’s text as a plea for souls to be brought to Heaven. At the end of the piece the word ‘Amen’ is repeated several times and sounds uncertain until right at the end when the music finally resolves into the major and in Owen Rees’s words, “an unexpected beam of sublime light shines.” By comparison, Harris’s setting, written 50 years earlier, is like balm to the soul. Here we experience the serenity of old age and also a look back to Harris’s earlier masterpiece Faire is the heaven; it’s surely no coincidence that these two sublime anthems share the same key of D flat major. Rees and his choir do both of these Harris pieces extremely well. In Bring us, O Lord God I like the way that Rees so cleverly finds the tipping point of tempo that the performance has breadth but also urgency.
The fascinating pieces by Rihards Dubra and Gabriel Jackson are remarkable for the way in which the composers use luminous choral textures, especially among the higher voices. I’d not heard Cecilia McDowall’s I know that my Redeemer liveth before. It must have been a considerable challenge to set a text immortalised by Handel in Messiah but she was not daunted by the task and produced a piece that is beautiful and expertly crafted.
Toby Young’s Seven Trumpets, one of the pieces commissioned for this recording, takes an apocalyptic text from Revelation which describes some of the events that occur when the said angels blow their trumpets. The piece is, as you might expect, a dramatic one for choir and organ though the ending, ushered in by a solo alto, is slower and calm. I admire the fact that the composer resists the temptation to use the obvious gesture of trumpet-like fanfares. Also commissioned for the disc was Marco Galvani’s Et vidi angelum. Galvani was a student at Queen’s College at the time and he too has taken a vivid text from Revelation and set it in an arresting and resourceful fashion.
I was astonished to find that Kenneth Leighton’s Alleluia, Amen here achieves its first recording, over 55 years since it was written. That will account for the piece being new to me. Much of the music is exuberant and dancing in nature. It’s a super, joyful piece and I admire too the way Leighton winds down the celebratory music to a gently ecstatic close. This paves the way most intelligently for John Rutter’s anthem, one of several examples in this programme of one piece ushering in its successor. I was present in Gloucester Cathedral in 1992 when Hymn to the Creator of Light received its first performance. That was at a service of Choral Evensong during the Three Choirs Festival at which the Herbert Howells memorial window was dedicated. I thought at the time that this was one of the best Rutter pieces I’d heard and I haven’t changed that view. It’s a marvellous piece and the present performance is as good as any I’ve heard.
Organist and composer David Bednall is one of Queens College’s most distinguished musical alumni. He returns here as guest organist in the pieces by Leighton and Toby Young. He is both organist and composer in the last piece on this programme, his The Seventh Angel. This is another Revelation setting. The gripping, powerful opening contains exciting writing for both the choir and the organ. The pace slows in the middle for a quiet section for high voices and organ I’d describe the mood as one of tense calm. The resumption of the mood and music from the start of the piece brings about a stunning conclusion.
This is a fine disc. I admired the music, all of which has been selected with discernment. The choir sings extremely well throughout a challenging programme. They have been expertly recorded by producer Adrian Peacock and engineer David Hinitt, a team highly experienced in assignments of this nature. Signum supply a well-produced booklet containing useful notes by Owen Rees as well as all the texts.
Contents Sir James MACMILLAN (b.1959)
Alpha and Omega (2011) [7:22] Sir William HARRIS (1883-1973)
Bring us, O Lord God (1959) [3:33] Rihards DUBRA (b.1964)
Stetit angelus (2005) [4:40] Edgar BAINTON (1880-1956)
And I saw a new heaven (1928) [5:20] Gabriel JACKSON (b.1962)
Ecce venio cito [5:58] Cecilia MCDOWALL (b. 1951)
I know that my Redeemer liveth (2009) [5:29] Toby YOUNG (b. 1990)
Seven Trumpets [6:33] Sir James MACMILLAN
Bring us, O Lord God (2009) [5:38] Marco GALVANI (b. 1994)
Et vidi angelum [4:47] Sir William HARRIS
Faire is the heaven (1925) [4:57] Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988)
Alleluia, Amen (1961) [8:23] John RUTTER (b. 1945)
Hymn to the Creator of Light (1992) [7:03] Phillip COOKE (b. 1980)
The World on Fire [3:31] David BEDNALL (b. 1979)
The Seventh Angel [5:00]