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Before the Ending of the Day - Music for Choral Evening Prayer
The Exon Singers/Richard Wilberforce
Jonathan Vaughn (organ)
rec. 28 & 29 July, 2016, St Peter’s, Wyndham Square, Plymouth. DDD
Texts & translations included
All works except the Voluntary commissioned by The Exon Singers
*World premiere recording, Commissioned for this recording

The Exon Singers is a chamber choir based in Devon. We’ve reviewed several of their recordings in the past. This present CD has been issued to mark their 50th anniversary in 2016. A key date in the choir’s calendar is their annual Festival which takes place each summer. The Festival takes place in the Devon market town of Tavistock and also in Buckfast Abbey, the Benedictine monastery nearby. Since 1997 the Festival has featured a composer-in-residence and those composers, and others, have written pieces for the Exon Singers. A selection of these pieces comprises the programme for this CD.

The choir numbers 25 (9/5/5/6) and they make an excellent sound. The ensemble is disciplined yet flexible and there’s a good balance between the sections. The repertoire that they sing here must be challenging to sing but the performances are as assured as they are committed. I enjoyed listening to the choir very much. The singers’ cause is helped by the fact that they’ve been most sympathetically recorded by producer Tim Oldham and engineer Phil Rowlands. The acoustic of St Peter’s church is very pleasing and there’s a natural glow to the sound. The balance between the choir and the organ has been well judged.

A good example of the quality of the recording comes in the unaccompanied psalm setting by David Briggs where it seems to me that the choir is ideally presented. Briggs’ through-composed setting is gorgeously harmonised in eight parts. The piece that follows by David Goodenough is described as a psalm setting in the track list but in fact only two lines from Psalm 133 have been set. It matters not; what does matter is that this is a very good piece which features rich choral textures and has an independent, very interesting organ part.

I’ve come to admire the music of Matthew Martin very much and his ‘Te lucis ante terminum’ is an excellent example of his work. The melodic line, later harmonised most inventively, flows like plainchant and the organ part enriches the piece. I was delighted to find two pieces by Francis Jackson, the distinguished former Organist of York Minster who will celebrate his 100th birthday later this year. ‘A Hymn to God the Father’ was composed for the Exon Singers’ 2005 Festival. It’s for unaccompanied SAATB choir and it’s a fine piece. I admired the wonderful harmonic writing and the way that the music flows seamlessly. The other piece, another setting of ‘Te lucis ante terminum’, was written a few years later when Jackson had just entered his tenth decade. There’s no sign of the passing years dimming his creative spirit. The three verses feature different combinations of voices and everything is set against an inventive, flowing organ part. This fine piece was subsequently included in the important publication Choirbook for the Queen compiled to mark Her Majesty’s diamond jubilee.

Howard Skempton’s ‘Ave Virgo sanctissima’ was also included in that compilation of choral pieces. Apparently the inspiration was the setting of the same text by Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599). Skempton wrote the piece for the Exon Singers’ 2007 Festival. It’s a choice example of his slow-moving style. The music is serene and lovely and the present performance is expertly controlled by the choir. The Marian theme is picked up later in the programme in what is, in effect, a triptych of anthems. I’ve heard and been impressed by some orchestral pieces by Joseph Phibbs in the past but to the best of my recollection I’ve not encountered any choral music. His ‘Salve Regina’ is a fine piece; its harmonies are arresting no matter whether the dynamics are loud or soft. Gabriel Jackson’s ‘Ave Maria’, which I’ve heard before, includes trademarks of his vocal style: luminous textures and ‘Scotch snap’ rhythms. The soft ending, which features first one and then two solo soprano voices over hushed chordal writing for the choir, is especially appealing. The close harmonies of Gareth Tresdier’s ‘O Virgo splendens’ are radiant. I liked this piece very much, not least the beseeching tenor solo towards the close.

Richard Wilberforce has been Conductor and Artistic Director of the Exon Singers since 2012 (his predecessor was Matthew Owens, Director of Music at Wells Cathedral.) His set of Preces and Responses is very interesting; the music is quite exploratory at times. I was intrigued by his response to ‘My Soul, there is a country’. It would be a challenge to emulate Parry’s masterly setting of Henry Vaughan’s words in his Songs of Farewell. Instead Wilberforce sets the text as a festival hymn. The tune is big and confident, reflecting Anglican hymnody very successfully. I suspect the tune, though an admirable one, is too long – and perhaps a bit too complicated – for congregational use. However, perhaps recognising that, Wilberforce has included music for two sets of four lines which, though the words are different, act as a kind of refrain. I could envisage a congregation successfully picking up and enjoying that part of the piece. The piece as a whole is stirring

The whole programme has been designed – very skilfully – as a kind of Evening Prayer without spoken words. Thus Wilberforce’s hymn is appropriately placed as the last bit of singing. All that remains is for the organist to play us out. Jonathan Vaughn, the Assistant Director of Music at Wells Cathedral, has already provided several splendid accompaniments during the programme. David Bednall’s Fanfare-Processional gives him his moment in the sun. This is a splendid, arresting conclusion – and it’s just the right length too.

This is a most interesting programme of recent liturgical music. Every piece is well worth hearing. The music is technically challenging but Richard Wilberforce and his excellent choir are fully up to the task and they serve the various composers very well indeed. As I’ve mentioned, the recorded sound is very persuasive. It only remains to say that the notes by Graham Wood, one of the basses in the choir, offer introductions to each piece that may be short but tell you all you need to know.

This is a fine way for the Exon Singers to mark their first five decades.

John Quinn

Howard SKEMPTON (b 1947) Ave Virgo sanctissima (2007) [2:56]
Richard WILBERFORCE (b 1984) Preces (2016)* [1:43]
Matthew MARTIN (b 1976) Te lucis ante terminum (2013)* [2:45]
Francis JACKSON (b 1917) Te lucis ante terminum (2008)* [3:57]
David BRIGGS (b 1962) Psalm 121: I will lift up mine eyes (2006) [3:49]
David GOODENOUGH (b 1968) Psalm 133: Behold how good and joyful a thing it is* (2003) [2:51]
Francis JACKSON A Hymn to God the Father (2004) [5:06]
Brian CHAPPLE (b 1945) Safe where I cannot lie yet (2012)* [3:57]
Robin HOLLOWAY (b 1943) Splendour of the Father’s Glory (2014)* [3:30]
James BURTON (b 1974) Magnificat (2015)* [3:59]
Toby YOUNG (b 1990) The Lord’s Prayer (2014}* [3:21]
Joseph PHIBBS (b 1974) Salve Regina (2010)* [4:50]
Gabriel JACKSON (b 1962) Ave Maria (2004) [6:38]
Gareth TRESEDER (b 1985) O Virgo splendens (2016)* [4:25]
Richard WILBERFORCE My Soul, there is a country (2016)* [2:31]
David BEDNALL (b 1979) Fanfare – Processional [Voluntary] (2010)* [4:18]



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