Katy Hill (soprano)
Leah Jackson (soprano)
Gareth Brynmor John (baritone)
James Orford & Hugh Rowlands (organ);
Chelsea Pensioners’ Choir
Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea/William Vann
rec. 2018, Temple Church, London
SOMM CÉLESTE SOMMCD0187 [80:30]
Since 2014, the UK - and other nations, too - has been commemorating the centenary of World War I, the so-called Great War. That commemoration will close on 11 November 2018, the centenary of the Armistice that brought that conflict to an end. By a fitting piece of symmetry, 11 November will also be the day on which the UK’s annual Remembrance Sunday falls in 2018. Music has played a significant part in the centenary observances; there have been some new pieces, and a good deal of music composed around the time of the war has been performed and recorded. This new disc from SOMM will probably be one of the last discs issued in connection with the centenary.
William Vann has a very direct connection to the First World War. His
Great-Great-Uncle, Lieutenant Colonel Bernard Vann (b 1887) served for most
of the war with the infantry in France. An ordained Anglican clergyman, he
has the distinction of being the only combatant Chaplain ever to receive the
Victoria Cross, the UK’s highest award for gallantry. I learned when I did a
bit of research that prior to the bravery which occasioned the award of the
VC, Col Vann had also been twice awarded the Military Cross, the
second-highest award for bravery, in 1915 and again in 1916. The action in
which he gained the Victoria Cross took place at the end of September 1918.
Four days later, on 3 October 1918, he was killed by a sniper aged just 31.
To win three awards for conspicuous gallantry speaks of extraordinary
This is a very thoughtfully conceived programme. Much of the music that is included is consolatory in nature and tone and I think that’s right and proper. There are, however, a few pieces, such as Jerusalem, that are more robust in character. Does this suggest a nod to jingoism? I think not. Each time I’ve listened to this programme I’ve been reminded of a comment that the conductor Adrian Partington made to me recently when discussing Stanford’s Mass,
Via Victrix, a score composed at the end of the War. He reminded me that when the conflict drew to a close, although there was sadness, of course, at the tremendous toll of casualties, there was also a sense of pride in Britain that the necessary task of fighting the country’s enemies had been successfully accomplished; the deaths were not felt to have been a waste. So, patriotism was by no means ruled out of court. Thus, I think, do pieces such as O Valiant Hearts find a proper place in this programme.
The hymn O Valiant Hearts was written in 1919. The composer of its oak-steady tune was Charles Harris, the Vicar of the Herefordshire village of Colwall, near Ledbury. The words he set are by a politician, John Arkwright (1872-1954). Are the words and the sentiments expressed simply of their time? Perhaps not. I must admit I wasn’t prepared to be moved as I was by this hymn, even though I’ve heard it sung many times before. Perhaps the fact that the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea were reinforced during three of the five verses by the 24-strong Chelsea Pensioners’ Choir imparts a frisson. But mainly, I think, it’s a question of context. This robust hymn follows Elgar’s deeply felt and sincere setting of words by Cardinal Newman. They are at rest was in fact written to mark the anniversary of the death of Queen Victoria but it suits the present context just as well. It’s sensitively sung here. It might be thought that to follow the Elgar with O Valiant Hearts would jar but I don’t find that to be so. Equally, I thought it very poignant to follow the hymn with Parry’s exquisite There is an old belief. This, the fourth of his magnificent Songs of Farewell, is suffused with melancholy and William Vann and his expert singers do it full justice. I have a very mild reservation: in the first half of the Parry piece the six-part harmony is rendered with great clarity but it seems to me that the individual parts stand out just a little too much. Just to check, I listened to the same piece sung by Tenebrae on what is one of my favourite recordings of the Songs of Farewell (review). There, the blend seems smoother and I think that’s because Vann’s choir is a bit more closely recorded. That said, in the crucial second half of the piece, the very moving sequences to the words ‘Eternal be the sleep’ seem perfectly balanced. What eloquent music this is!
Another robust hymn, I Vow to Thee, My Country is sandwiched between the lovely Parry setting and Stanford’s equally beautiful Justorum animae. Oddly, I didn’t think this worked as well as the juxtaposition involving O Valiant Hearts. I can only conclude that this is purely a matter of subjective personal taste. For some reason, Holst’s decision to make his big tune from ‘Jupiter’ fit to someone else’s words has always left me feeling slightly uncomfortable. Perhaps the fact that partway through Holst had to drop the tune an octave adds to the sense of “shoehorning”. Perhaps it’s Cecil Spring Rice’s words. Whatever my personal reservations, there’s no denying the rousing nature of the present performance in which, once again, the Chelsea Pensioners’ Choir takes part. They are also involved – inevitably and rightly - in Jerusalem. I like the description of Parry’s tune in the notes as “music of stirring, spine-tingling stoicism and the promise of restored (or perhaps a new) spiritual grandeur.”
For me, Holst is far more satisfactorily represented by his Ode to Death. In this work, which he wrote in memory of friends killed in the war, Holst sets lines from Walt Whitman’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d in which the poet mourned Abraham Lincoln. Holst’s original version was for choir and orchestra but here the piece is heard in a new arrangement for organ by Iain Farrington. I think this works very well indeed and it allows a performance by a small choir of just 20 singers (6/4/4/6). Small in numbers they may be, but this group, comprised of professionals, I believe, can make a terrific sound on a recording. So, the fervent passages of Whitman’s words (stanzas 2 and 5) register very powerfully. But where Farrington’s re-scoring for organ truly comes into its own, I think, is in the more delicate stretches of music. Here, the small-scale forces give Holst’s music a wonderful sense of intimacy. The organ part itself is despatched with sensitivity and, where appropriate, no little power by James Orford,
Iain Farrington also has a hand in the version of Fauré’s Requiem that we hear. This is described as his arrangement for organ. In my experience, when I’ve taken part in or heard an organ-accompanied performance of this work, the organist has adapted the keyboard part in the vocal score. I followed this performance in my copy of John Rutter’s edition of the 1893 version of the score and, to be honest, for the most part, I couldn’t detect too many differences. The choir seems to be singing the 1893 chorus parts for one thing, and the organ part seemed pretty much to replicate what I was reading in the score. The major difference comes in the ‘Sanctus’. In Fauré’s original, much of the movement includes in the accompaniment a rippling series of upward-moving semiquavers. Vocal scores – such as those published by Novello and Hamelle – usually include those figurations at the expense of some of the harmonies. Rutter includes them too, though for a second player to deliver. Farrington omits them, allowing the right hand to play without distraction the crucial line usually heard on a solo violin. By doing this he preserves Fauré’s original harmonies, which in itself is good. It’s a trade-off, I suppose, but the loss of the semiquavers is a pity. Otherwise, I honestly couldn’t detect anything significantly different about Farrington’s accompaniment, though there were probably subtle points that my eyes or ears didn’t detect. Vocally, the performance is excellent. The choir sings clearly and cleanly with the parts in perfect balance. In the ‘Offertoire’, the canon between altos and tenors, with basses eventually joining in, is delectably done. I relished the tenors’ sappy rendition of their memorable tune in the ‘Agnus Dei’. During ‘In Paradisum’ the sopranos are pure and poised, floating Fauré’s line ethereally. The soloists are excellent. Katy Hill produces lovely tone in ‘Pie Jesu’ while Gareth Brynmor John is firm and full of tone and sings expressively. A fine performance of this radiant Requiem is underpinned by splendid playing from organist James Orford, with Hugh Rowlands taking over the console in two movements.
You might expect the hushed ending of the Fauré to bring the programme to a close but there’s an extra item, and a very welcome one. Ian Venables’ setting of the introit to the Requiem Mass for choir and organ is at present a standalone piece, first performed in 2017. However, it’s intended to be part of an eight-movement Requiem. On 2 November, as part of the liturgy for All Souls’ Day, Adrian Partington and the Choir of Gloucester Cathedral will sing the ‘Requiem aeternam’ and, for the first time, the other five completed movements. I understand that the two remaining movements are to follow in 2019. ‘Requiem aeternam’, here receiving its first recording, promises much. As you might expect from such a fine composer of songs, the writing for the voices is most accomplished while the organ part is full of interest. The music is expressive, very beautiful and, to my ears, speaks with something of a French accent (though I may be wrong about that.) The primary tone is consolatory, though there are some ardent passages, such as at ‘Et tibi reddetur votum in Jerusalem’. The piece achieves a tranquil ending which is very fitting for the programme as a whole, I believe. Splendidly performed here, this has whetted my appetite to hear the other movements on 2 November.
Throughout the programme the singing of the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea is superb. Clearly, William Vann has prepared them expertly and his conducting evidences great empathy with the music. Apart from my very slight reservation about the Parry, the recording is excellent. Engineer Adaq Khan and producer Siva Oke have captured the sound of the choir very truthfully and pleasingly while the balance between singers and organ is ideal. The notes by Michael Quinn (no relation) are excellent.
This album is a fine way to mark the centenary of the Armistice but it’s also an album that will have enduring value into the future.
John IRELAND (1879-1962) Greater Love Hath No Man (19120 [5:56]
Sir Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918) Jerusalem (1916) [2:41]
Douglas GUEST (1916-1996) For the Fallen (1971) [1:20]
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) They are at rest (1910) [3:34]
Charles HARRIS (1865-1936) O Valiant Hearts (1919) [3;22]
Sir Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY There is an old belief (1915) [5:04]
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934) I Vow to Thee, My Country (1921) [2:34]
Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924) Justorum animae [3:57]
Gustav HOLST (arr. Iain FARRINGTON) Ode to Death (1919) [12:13]
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924) (arr. Iain Farrington) Requiem in D minor [33:55]
Ian VENABLES (b 1955) Requiem aeternam (2017) [5:50]