Under a Celtic Sky
Cantemus Chamber Choir/Huw Williams
Peter King (organ)
rec. The Chapel of Keble College, Oxford, 2017
REGENT REGCD502 [70:50]
I enjoyed this CD despite minor reservations about its raison d’être. The CD advertising blurb states that this “recording features sacred and secular choral music from many areas of the British Isles traditionally regarded as having Celtic roots”. In addition, several works by English composers “writing on a variety of Celtic and other folk themes are included”. The CD producers posit that an imaginative way of evoking national identity is to listen to the musical language that has been used in that nation over the centuries, in both its religious and its social settings.’
One or two anomalies do creep in. Do we regard the Unionist, Charles Villiers Stanford born in Dublin, as a ‘Celtic’ composer or as a British one? And what about Cornwall and the Isle of Man? They are not included composer-wise.
Charles Villiers Stanford’s ‘The blue bird’ would be one of my desert islands discs. It is a perfect fusion of music and words and is given an ideal performance here. As an aside, other works that, for me, fall into this ‘perfect’ category include Arthur Sullivan’s ‘The Long Day Closes’, Frederick Delius’ ‘On Craig Ddu’, John Ireland’s atmospheric ‘The Hills’ and Olivier Messiaen’s ‘O Sacrum Convivium.’ Others will disagree! Stanford is also represented by two masterly anthems: ‘For lo, I raise up’, which sets a difficult apocalyptic text by the Prophet Habakkuk and the restrained ‘Beati quorum via’ taken from Psalm 119.
English-born Parry’s ubiquitous setting of Welshman Henry Vaughan’s inspiring ‘My Soul, there is a Country’ is given yet another outing. It is well sung here.
I did wonder if yet another recording of John Rutter’s popular ‘A Gaelic Blessing’ was a wise choice. Are there no other settings sourced from Gaelic texts or tunes that could have been included? I love Rutter’s piece, but there are more than 20 versions in the current catalogues.
Nearly as popular is Benjamin Britten’s ‘A Hymn of St Columba’, composed in 1962 as part of the 1400 celebrations of the Celtic Saint’s arrival at Iona. This is a short but complex piece that majors on the Day of Judgement. Paul Stopford’s ‘Do not be afraid’, based on a passage from the Prophet Isaiah, “offers reassurance in our troubled times”. It is effective and quite simply lovely. But I wondered what the Celtic connection is? It is quite simply English-born Stopford’s seven-year tenure as Director of Music at the beautiful St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast…
The main novelty on this disc for me are the Four Welsh Folksongs, op.39 by Welsh composer William Mathias. They were composed in 1968 (not 1983 as stated in the liner notes: this is when they were published) and dedicated to the Cardiff Polyphonic Choir. As would be rightly expected, they are sung in Welsh with an English translation provided in the insert. They are thoroughly enjoyable numbers that present a song in praise of holly, a meditation on the homecoming of a prodigal son or daughter and a quarrel between a lazy wife and her feckless husband. William Mathias is also represented by his anthem ‘As truly as God is our Father’ (1987) which is a remarkable setting of a prayer by Mother Julian of Norwich.
Other Welsh composers featured in this CD include Geraint Lewis with his peaceful anthem ‘The Souls of the Righteous’. This is a sustained meditation on the “peace which passeth all understanding” and is the reward of the ‘faithful’, and is truly gorgeous. Paul Mealor’s ‘Ubi Caritas’ was heard by millions of people who tuned into the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding in 2011. This is a lovely setting of the Antiphon from the Washing of the Feet at the Mass of the Last Supper. Subtle techniques make this a synthesis of the “harmonic suspensions of a Morten Lauridsen or Eric Whitacre” and plainsong.
Cornwall is represented by a single number: ‘I love my love’ which is a traditional song arranged by the English-born, of Latvian/Swedish/German ancestry, composer Gustav Holst. They were originally part of his Six Choral Folksongs. Were there no native Cornish composers from whom an anthem could be found? (such as George Lloyd, David Willcocks or Derek Holman). The other Holst work here is his setting of ‘Swansea Town’ from his Six Hampshire Folksongs.
The Scottish selection of ‘Afton Water’, to a text by Robert Burns arranged by David Willcocks hardly seems to reflect the Celtic element of Scotland. With one or two exceptions the text of this song is written in standard English by a poet who hardly regarded himself as a Celt. The final song on this CD is fairly and squarely in the Welsh camp. The maudlin ‘Dafydd y Garreg Wen’ or ‘David Of White Rock’ arranged by Robert Court.
The Cantemus Choir based in Cardiff ensures that the Welsh nation is well-represented here by some fine music, all of which is well-sung under the direction of Huw Williams. And do not forget the excellent contribution from organist, Peter King. The liner notes include a good introduction to the music, give the texts and translations, and the biographies of the performers. Dates for all the pieces are not included: I have given them in the track-listing where provided.
This is an imaginative CD that explores music from the four corners of the United Kingdom. Whether the Celtic connection proposed by the advertising is fully achieved is a matter of opinion (as noted above). There are some beautiful anthems and delightful folksongs here, several of which are premiere performances.
Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924) For lo, I raise up, op.145 (1914) [7:45]
Geraint LEWIS (b.1958) The souls of the righteous (1992) [7:39]
Charles Villiers STANFORD Beati quorum via (pub. 1905) [3:35]
Paul MEALOR (b.1975) Ubi caritas (2011) [4:07]
John RUTTER (b.1945) A Gaelic blessing [1:59]
Philip W J STOPFORD (b.1977) Do not be afraid [4:40]
William MATHIAS (1934-92) As truly as God is our Father (1987) [6:25]
Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918) My soul, there is a country (1916/18) [3:48]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-76) A hymn of St Columba (1962) [2:09]
Charles Villiers STANFORD The blue bird (1910) [3:14]
William MATHIAS Four Welsh folk songs (1983): Y Gelynnen (The Holly Bush) [2:32]; Robin Ddiog (Lazy Robin) [3:12]; Hobed o hilion (The Wistful Wanderer) [3:53]; Dadl dau (A Quarrel for Two) [1:41]
Cornish trad, arr. Gustav HOLST (1874-1934) I love my love [4:27]
Scottish trad, arr. David WILLCOCKS (1919-2015) Afton Water [3:35]
English trad, arr. Gustav HOLST Swansea Town [3:34]
Welsh trad, arr. Robert COURT (b.1954) Dafydd y Garreg Wen (David of White Rock) [2:30]