A Year at Exeter
The Choir of Exeter Cathedral/Timothy Noon
Timothy Parsons (organ)
rec. Exeter Cathedral, 2018
Full texts included with English translations of those in Latin REGENTREGCD524 [68:32]
I hold up my hand and confess that I have never been to Exeter Cathedral. I have been through the city several times on Western Region trains to Torquay, Paignton and St Ives. By all accounts I have missed a beautiful place of worship, an interesting town-centre and several splendid pubs by failing to get off the train. It is something I ought to remedy soon.
On 22 November, a few days before the start of the Christian Year in Advent, the Feast of St Cecilia is celebrated. Exeter Cathedral Choir have chosen Herbert Howells’s anthem ‘A Hymn of St Cecilia’, which is a setting of a text by Ursula Vaughan Williams. It was composed in 1959-60. The anthem follows the life of the saint from childhood to martyrdom and concludes by beseeching her to ‘lend us a fragment of the immortal air/that with your choiring angels we may share’. It is largely strophic with a good melody and a robust organ accompaniment.
The composer Robert Parsons was a near-contemporary of William Byrd. The present five-part setting for Advent of the angel Gabriel’s mystical words ‘Ave Maria’ - ‘Hail Mary’ - are presented with deep respect and compassion. Parsons is a composer I would like to hear more of. With a couple of exceptions, recordings of his music tend to be on compilations rather than single-composer discs. It is understood that Robert Parsons drowned in the River Trent at Newark. William Byrd succeeded him as one of the Gentlemen at the Chapel Royal.
Former member of the King’s Singers Philip Lawson provides the carol for Christmas. ‘Lullay my liking’ is a well-wrought little lullaby that balances a softly rocking mood with some introspective music that is sometimes bitter-sweet in its exposition. It is a lovely choice for Christmas Day that truly explores the theological meaning of the Feast.
Thomas Tallis’s ‘Videte miraculum (Behold the marvel) is based on the Roman chant used at the First Vespers of the Purification from the Sarum Rite. The feast is also known as Candlemas. Tallis’s anthem probably dates from the Restoration of Catholic worship under Queen Mary. This magical setting uses the ancient plainsong as a ‘cantus firmus’ which is sung in the tenor voice of the six-part choir. The liner notes wisely suggest that the music creates ‘an atmosphere of placid wonderment at the description of the mystery of the Virgin Birth and the Christ-child now appearing in the temple at Jerusalem.’ It is the longest piece on this disc.
The season of Lent is represented by Henry Purcell’s doleful ‘Hear my Prayer.’ The setting is complex, featuring eight-part writing. The anthem opens quietly but builds to a deeply disturbing crescendo which uses chordal structures that are surprisingly dissonant and timeless in effect.
The Good Friday offering is John Blow’s ‘Salvator Mundi’ (Saviour of the World). The anthem sets the Latin antiphon from the Solemn Liturgy of the day. Listeners will detect a dramatic fusion of text and harmony’. They will also hear unexpected key changes (notably at ‘auxiliare nobis’) and surprising chromaticism especially at the repeated words ‘per crucem’. Blow seems to have had some Italian exemplars in mind when he composed Salvator Mundi, including Monteverdi.
The first selection for Easter is Samuel Sebastian Wesley’s ‘Blessed be the God and Father.’ In fact, it was written for the Easter Day celebrations at Hereford Cathedral in 1834. Wesley had been appointed there as organist in 1832. The story goes that only trebles and a single bass were available for that performance. The anthem is in a kind of ‘operatic’ three parts. It opens with a choral section followed by a dialogue between treble solo and full treble bookended by a recitative for tenors and basses and concludes with a splendid fughetta. The organ part is full of interest, with several massive explosions of sound. Who says that English music was dead in the 1800s before Parry’s Prometheus Unbound?
Patrick Hadley’s well-known anthem ‘My Beloved Spake’ is also ideal for Easter. The words are taken from the Song of Solomon. This text has had many mystical, prophetic and literal meanings attached to it. In this case it is an allegory of the Church’s faith in the Resurrection of Christ. This lovely anthem, which has a sensual and rich musical language, was performed at the composer’s memorial service at the Chapel of Gonville and Caius on 16 February 1974.
My favourite anthem on this CD is Timothy Parson’s ‘The Lord is King’, which has been chosen for Ascension Day. This was composed as recently as 2015 when he was organ scholar at Winchester Cathedral. The composer has stated that his setting of Psalm 93 ‘evokes a sense of majesty that was [both] mysterious and awesome.’ Clearly there is a sense of the ‘triumphant’ about this music, however this is balanced by a quiet and reflective view of some of the words: this even includes the acclamation ‘The Lord is King’. The anthem is characterised by a stunningly impressive organ part and beautifully structured harmonies.
Poor old John Stainer has had a bad press. Often accused of belonging to the ‘grind and scrape’ school of musical composition, his music was until relatively recently consigned to the rubbish heap of Victoriana. The one exception was the cantata The Crucifixion which is still regularly heard during Lent.
The present anthem, ‘I saw the Lord’ (1858) was written when he was only eighteen years old. Jeremy Dibble has described this work as ‘an exceptional, bold and original essay exhibiting a rare confidence from one so young and inexperienced.’ The anthem, which is written for a double choir with an ‘excitingly’ colourful organ part, is extrovert, lyrical, sometimes chromatic and includes a beautiful middle section for soloists. Much of the progress of the anthem is chordal, but the composer makes use of imitation, counterpoint and fughetta in several sections of the work. It may not be by Stanford, Howells or Chilcott, but this is a lovely work that is both inspiring and moving.
I did not enjoy American composer Anthony Piccolo’s ‘Jesus walking on the waves.’ It is not the dissonance that gets to me: it just seems to be a little bit slow to get going. The text is a ‘reinterpretation’ of the biblical text (Matthew 14:22-33) made by Richard Pleming. I concede that there are some interesting (and even beautiful) choral effects. The anthem was used to celebrate St Peter’s Day.
The final work is Jonathan Dove’s ‘Seek him that maketh the seven stars’ which was composed in 1995. It is a setting of words from the Minor Prophet Amos and Psalm 139. Dove has declared that ‘the theme of light, and starlight, is an endless source of inspiration for composers.’ There are several magical moments in this anthem including a musical representation of the night sky explored in the organ part. The choir’s singing is a subtle balance between the wonder of looking at the night sky and the desire to ‘seek Him’ who created this wonder. The music develops into a joyful dance before returning to a mood of quiet resignation.
This anthem is used to commemorate the Feast of Christ the King. This festival is usually on the Last Sunday of the Church’s Year just before Advent. It is a summing up of the celebrations that have occurred throughout the Christian Year.
The liner notes prepared by John Lees are most helpful and informative. The texts and translations of the Latin are included. Although there is a good overhead picture of the Loosemore/Willis/Harrison & Harrison three manual organ, there is no specification given.
This is an outstanding choice of music for the Church’s Year. There is variety and historical diversity. The singing by Exeter Cathedral Choir is always disciplined, lucid and inspiring. The excellent organist on this CD is Timothy Parsons who is the Assistant Director of Music at Exeter Cathedral. He is also represented with a splendid anthem: my ‘Number 1’ on this disc.
John France Contents
St Cecilia: Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983) A Hymn for St Cecilia (1960) [3:15]
Advent: Robert PARSONS (?-1572) Ave Maria (1550s) [4:54]
Christmas: Philip LAWSON (b.1957) Lullay my Liking (??) [5:35]
Candlemas: Thomas TALLIS (c.1505-85) Videte miraculum (1550s) [11:20]
Lent: Henry PURCELL (1659-95) Hear my prayer, O Lord, Z15 (before 1683) [2:30]
Good Friday: John BLOW (1649-1708) Salvator Mundi (?) [3:42]
Easter: Samuel Sebastian WESLEY (1810-76) Blessed be the God and Father (1834) [7:59]
Easter: Patrick HADLEY (1899-73) My beloved spake (1938) [3:28]
Ascension: Timothy PARSONS (b.1992) The Lord is King (2015) [5:33]
Trinity: John STAINER (1840-1901) I saw the Lord (1858) [7:37]
St Peter: Anthony PICCOLO (b.1953) Jesus walking on the waves (1978) [5:37]
Christ the King: Jonathan DOVE (b.1959) Seek him that maketh the seven stars (1995) [7:00]
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