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Francis JACKSON (b. 1917) Sacred Choral Works
Missa Matris Dei, Op 72 (1988) [19:46]
O Salutaris Hostia, Op 115 (1998) [4:51]
Tantum Ergo (Second Setting), Op 118 (1999) [4:53]
A Hymn to God the Father, Op 147/2 (2004) [5:32]
Three Carols for Advent, Op. 73 (1987)
Gabriel’s Message [2:45]
I Know a Flower [3:29]
While the Careless World is Sleeping [3:47]
Evening Service in B flat, Homage to Thomas Weelkes, Op 149 (2005)
Nunc Dimittis [5:15]
O Most Merciful, Op 36 (1970) [3:57]
The Prayer of St Francis, Op 61 (1984) [6:29]
Thanks be to the Lord, Op 133 (2002) [3:3]
The Exon Singers/Mathew Owens
David Bednall (organ)
rec. 2006, Wells Cathedral
Texts included DELPHIAN DCD34035 [70:18]
Just recently, to mark the 100th birthday of Francis Jackson, which fell on 2 October 2017, I
reviewed an excellent 1997 CD of his sacred choral music sung by the Choir of York Minster conducted by Philip Moore. I remarked then that there was another CD of his church music, released by Delphian, which I had not heard. Well, now I have.
I suspect that the 1997 disc, issued by Priory, was made to celebrate Jackson’s 80th birthday. This time there’s no doubt: Delphian make it clear that this disc was a celebration of the composer’s 90th birthday. The good news for anyone wanting to investigate Dr Jackson’s music is that there’s no overlap of repertoire between the two releases. In fact, the pieces selected by the Exon Singers all received their first recordings on this disc. I don’t know how many of the pieces have subsequently achieved a second recording though the Exon Singers themselves re-recorded A Hymn to God the Father on a mixed programme of some of their commissions which was issued earlier this year (review).
Matthew Owens had a long spell as conductor of the Exon Singers (1997-2012). At the time this recording was made he had not long taken up the position of Director of Music at Wells Cathedral; he began his tenure there at the start of 2005. David Bednall was Assistant Organist of the Cathedral at this time. Thus, Somerset’s wonderful cathedral was a logical venue for these sessions, at which Francis Jackson was present.
The programme begins auspiciously, in terms of both the quality of the music and the performances, with the Missa Matris Dei, a Latin setting of the Ordinary of the Mass, though there is no Credo. The excellent notes accompanying the disc are by Jeremy Cull and I wouldn’t dissent for a moment with his description of Jackson’s setting as “intensely lyrical”. That’s certainly true of the Kyrie. In this mass Jackson frequently displays French influences and these are well to the fore in his jubilant and exhilarating Gloria. Aa Jeremy Cull says, this movement “has real Gallic punch.” In this movement I particularly relished the often-spectacular organ part and the soaring soprano lines. Even in the episodes where the dynamic levels retreat a little this setting is still terrific and David Bednall makes the Wells organ sound magnificent. The Sanctus is big and majestic: in the exultant ‘Hosanna’ the Exon Singers’ tenors are well to the fore, making the most of the thrilling lines Jackson has given them. The Benedictus is more relaxed; here the lines flow beautifully, both in the choir parts and in the organ accompaniment. In the Agnus Dei a lovely solo soprano line – excellently delivered here – unfolds above the harmonies from the rest of the choir. Later, other solo voices join in. This is an eloquent movement, very beautifully laid out for the voices and with a subtle organ part. This is an extremely impressive setting of the Mass and Mathew Owens and his fine choir do it full justice.
Since 1973 the Exon Singers have given an annual Summer Festival based in and around the Devon town of Tavistock. This has given them the opportunity to commission a great deal of new music and indeed the CD which I mentioned earlier was devoted to 16 such commissions. I think I’m right in saying that Francis Jackson was in residence at two of these festivals – in 2005 and again in 2007 – and clearly a close relationship developed between him and the choir.
A Hymn to God the Father was written for them in 2004 and in it Jackson sets memorable lines by John Donne. The writing is in five parts – SAATB – and the music strikes me as a very fine response to Donne’s words. The harmonies frequently intrigue the listener and the part-writing is highly assured. A little later came the ‘Mag’ and ‘Nunc’. Though Jackson designated these Canticles as a ‘Homage to Thomas Weelkes’ he was emphatic that the music wasn’t a pastiche but, rather, paid homage through five-part choral writing. In fact, as Jeremy Cull justly observes, the music is much more reminiscent of Stanford and Howells – and I guess Francis Jackson will have conducted their music a great deal during his long and distinguished career at York Minster. These Canticles are very fine indeed. In the Magnificat I love the consistent momentum and interplay of the choral parts. There’s a big, confident ‘Glory be’ which closes majestically, the Wells organ sounding super here. There’s a slow, timeless feel to the ‘Nunc Dimittis’ which becomes radiant when Jackson reaches the line “To be a light to the Gentiles”. Again, the ‘Glory be’ rounds off the setting magnificently.
I’m glad Mathew Owens chose to include the Three Carols for Advent. These date from 1987 and though published as a set they’re all quite different from each other. Gabriel’s Message is not a setting of the narrative poem, so familiar from many other carols bearing this title. Instead Jackson has taken words from the Piae Cantiones in an English translation. The result, for choir with organ accompaniment, is a hymn-like piece which benefits from a fine and memorable tune that’s in the best traditions of English hymnody. Its companions are somewhat gentler. I Know a Flower is an English version of the words we know as Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen. Jackson’s piece is tranquil and rather lovely; the harmonies are rich and interesting. Finally, While the Careless World is Sleeping takes a poem by one B H Kennedy. The text was originally published in an anthology, Songs of Syon (1904), edited by G R Woodward. This piece is a gentle nocturne for choir and organ. Here we have a most attractive trio of pieces. Dare one suggest that choirs might take a serious look at them instead of some of the tried and trusted pieces when planning their Advent/Christmas repertoire?
Three individual anthems complete the programme. O Most Merciful features very intense harmonic language which I think is highly appropriate to the supplicatory text. The Prayer of St Francis is unusual in that Jackson takes the celebrated prayer (‘Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace’) but sets it to be sung in Italian. Judging by the list of works in the composer’s autobiography, Music for a Long While (2013), it can also be sung in English or Latin. It’s for unison trebles – or, as here, sopranos – with organ accompaniment. The use of only high voices gives the wining melodic line a pure, innocent air and I like the use of the open-throated Italian language. Thanks be to the Lord was written for a service in Manchester Cathedral, attended by Queen Elizabeth II on the eve of the 2002 Commonwealth Games which were held in the city. The service was also an act of thanksgiving for Manchester’s recovery from the IRA bombing of the Arndale shopping centre in 1996. The chosen text is lines from Psalm 31 and it’s a tremendous piece. Jackson pulls out all the stops with the organ part – and so does David Bednall – while the choral writing is jubilant and full of energy. Full of energy, too, is the singing of the Exon Singers. This piece makes a splendid end to a splendid and varied programme.
All the music on this disc is very fine and the programme has been discerningly selected to give us a varied selection of Jackson’s church music output. The singing is excellent from start to finish: the choral sound is fresh, clear and well-focussed. David Bednall’s organ playing is distinguished and, when the music calls for it, very exciting. As for the recording, the choir registers with presence and impact as well as fine clarity and I found I got a good sense of the ambience of Wells Cathedral around the sound. The cathedral boasts a very fine Harrison and Harrison organ and the instrument has been expertly recorded here. When it’s played full-out the sound is thrilling but the softer music also makes just the right effect. Furthermore, engineer Paul Baxter achieved a good and credible balance between the singers and the organ.
I’m very glad I’ve caught up with this excellent disc, albeit belatedly, and it’s particularly pleasing to be able to review it just as Francis Jackson celebrates his centenary. Both this disc and the earlier one from Priory offer excellent overviews of Jackson’s church music. Ideally anyone interested in the church music of this distinguished musician will want both discs. However, if you are restricted to just one disc then this Delphian offering takes the palm, I believe.
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