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Michael WALSH (b.1948)
…and the Greatest of these is Love
Mass of the Holy Trinity (1988) [11.15]
Requiem (2015) [42.38]
The Way of Love (2001) [12.07]
Louise Hardy, Elle Williams (sopranos)
Timothy Noon, Julian Rippon (basses)
Antiphon and the Antiphon Players/Matthew Cann
rec. 2017, Exeter Cathedral, UK

This year marks the 70th birthday of singer and composer Michael Walsh, who is associated with the Cathedrals of Exeter, where he grew up, Portsmouth, and now Chichester, where he sings and composes.

The Way of Love for soprano solo, SATB and Strings was premiered at Chichester in 2001 and has been performed several times since. It consists of a series of five settings of poems by Rupert Brooke. We tend to associate the poet with war poetry, but most of his work pre-dates 1914 and is often Romantic and idyllic in style. Walsh choses ‘The Way that Lovers are’ and ‘Home’, both from 1913, ‘Seaside’, finished in 1908, ‘Song’, subtitled ‘The Way of Love’, which gives the CD its title, and ‘The Chilterns’. The style is unashamedly English, Romantic mid-20th Century, diatonic and often modal, with singable melodies and pleasing harmonies. The composer’s choice of lighter poetry does not generally provide him with the scope to dig deep, but when it does, as in the brief ‘The Way of Love,’ he can be successful and sensitive.  Soloist Louise Hardy has a fresh neat voice and clear diction, and her intonation is mostly extremely reliable. The music for me just falls short in the last section, where in the longer poem the composer falls back on rather manufactured and underpowered ideas.

Cathedrals nowadays like settings of the Communion service to be concise and even brief - in common, one hopes, with sermons; lengthy, polyphonic mass settings are not commonly heard. Therefore, Walsh’s Mass is ideal at less than twelve minutes and could well be even shorter, depending on whether the ‘Kyrie’ or the ‘Gloria’, but probably not both, is given. It is a beautiful work, written with a singer’s understanding - and I say this as one who has sung it. The ‘Agnus Dei’ especially casts a spell; less so, the ‘Gloria’. The language is modal, typically English. If you know the Mass by Bernard Stevens, then you will appreciate its qualities. It could have been composed any time in the 20th century but actually dates from 1988; it has been published by the RSCM and is Walsh’s most performed composition.

However, the main work here is the Requiem for two soprano soloists, baritone solo, organ and SATB, written for the Bournemouth International Church Music Festival. In his very brief composer’s notes, Walsh comments that the work has “compact dimensions” and was “deliberately conceived… to be an homage to other great Requiems…Fauré, Duruflé and even Mozart”. Well, at forty-two minutes I don’t think it is particularly compact; indeed, the ‘Offertorium’ and ‘Pie Jesu’ seem rather prolix given the musical material employed. Fauré’s influence is clear in the way that the ‘Agnus Dei’ begins with the men’s voices, and in the rhythm of ‘Libera Me’ for the bass soloist. A nod to Mozart can be heard in the somewhat contrived fugal writing especially in the ‘Offertorium’ and the baroque opening of the ‘Rex tremendae’; Duruflé is less apparent, but the melodic lines often tend towards a plainchant-like modality. There are also passages of almost Edwardian grandeur which would have pleased Stanford and Parry.

So where is the real Michael Walsh? Perhaps it is in the calm, heart-easing of ‘In Paradisum’ and the unpretentious, very English setting of the opening ‘Kyrie,’ but overall I found this stylistic disparity unsatisfactory. The soloists are committed and the sopranos have a transparent, rounded tone quality, but the vibrato of bass Julian Rippon can sometimes be obtrusive. Organist Timothy Parsons supports perfectly and is well balanced in the recording.

Antiphon is clearly not a professional choir, but it makes a fresh sound and has mostly clear diction. The singers clearly know the music well, communicating it with love and affection under Matthew Cann’s sympathetic direction. The recording of the Mass made in the Lady Chapel of Exeter Cathedral has a pleasing amount of air around it but there is insufficient detail in the works recorded in the cathedral itself, even though the venue is ideal insofar as it was the place where the composer started his musical life.

Gary Higginson



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