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Leo SOWERBY (1895-1968)
American Master of Sacred Song
Richard K. Pugsley (bass)
Br. Paul Norman (bass)
Br. Francis Hempel (bass)
Luke Norman (baritone) Br. Peter Logan (tenor)
Sr. Christine Helfritch (soprano)
Sr. Katherine Mary Hamilton (soprano)
Gloriae Dei Brass Ensemble
Gloriae Dei Cantores / Elizabeth C. Patterson
James Jordan, David Chalmers (organ)
rec. Mechanics Hall & All Saints Church, Worcester, Massachusetts, date not provided

The year 2018 was notable as the centenary of the Armistice ending the Great War. But it was also the anniversary of several other events including the fiftieth anniversary of the death of the American composer Leo Sowerby. The Sowerby “case” is an interesting one: between the two World Wars his orchestral works were performed more often than those of any other American composer. But by the 1960s he was known to the public mainly as a composer of music for the Episcopal Church, although other musicians and musical organizations did not forget him: as late as 1963 his Organ Concerto No. 1 helped inauguarate Philharmonic Hall in New York.

After his death Sowerby’s music was little heard in the concert hall or on disc. In the 1990’s recordings started to appear, not just of church and organ music but orchestral, chamber, vocal, and piano music as well; seemingly quite a number of works, until one remembers that the composer wrote approximately five hundred pieces. Sowerby has yet to experience a revival of interest analogous to that of Stanford in England – another composer who for a period was remembered mostly for his music for the Church and much of whose output is now represented on disc. Perhaps Sowerby’s day will arrive: after all Hindemith was only half-joking when he said that “America has a fourth ‘B’, but a sour one”. The discs under consideration here were originally released in 1994 and re-released to honor the fiftieth anniversary of the composer's death. In my review of Gloriae Dei Cantores’ re-release of their disc of Rubbra’s church music (review) I mentioned some of GDC’s outstanding qualities. With Sowerby GDC get a chance to show yet more aspects of their talent.

The title of this two-disc set “American Master of Sacred Song” can be read two ways. Loosely, it defines the composer’s status as perhaps America’s pre-eminent creator of church music. But more specifically it refers to a small and little-known part of his output – songs with religious texts for voice and organ. The Three Psalms for Bass, from 1928, are the outstanding entries of this type. Taken together they form a mini tone-poem ranging in mood from agony to hard-won serenity. The music is beautifully written for the bass and completely supportive of the text; nor should the crucial organ part be forgotten. Less exciting are the two selections from the Three Songs of Faith and Penitence, with texts taken from Russian Orthodox hymns. They are beautifully written for the voice, but lack the emotional depth of the Three Psalms for Bass. Finally, there is the setting of Psalm 91, “Whoso Dwelleth”. Here Sowerby covers a lot of emotional ground in a small space of time but with an underlying feeling of calm that stays with the listener.

Carillion, along with Comes Autumn Time, helped make Sowerby well-known; both works being notable for Sowerby’s gift for orchestral coloring on the organ. While clearly descriptive, even to the use of bells, Carillion is a quiet piece, not at all like the “bell” pieces of French composers such as Vierne. Sowerby wrote music almost every day of his adult life and no one who creates that much can avoid having an “off” day (witness Turner and his 10,000 water-color sketches). For me the Canon, Chacony and Fugue comes from one of those “off” days. It was written for the composer’s organist friend E. Power Biggs and shows Sowerby’s’ ability to use the full range of the modern organ within classical structures. But it lacks the drive and emotion of the previously mentioned organ works. Somewhat more interesting is the Prelude on the hymn “Were you there” – appropriately atmospheric for the Easter season and Blithe, Bright and Brisk, written for the organist Marilyn Mason, and which could be described as “just for fun’, especially the last few notes.

Sowerby wrote half a dozen or so works for organ and orchestral or instrumental accompaniment. Amazingly, no less than four of them have been recorded, two of them twice if you count LP’s (review). Sowerby’s friend Biggs had a popular weekly radio show between 1942 and 1958 for which he occasionally commissioned composers to write for organ and instruments; both Roy Harris’ Toccata for Organ and Brass and Walter Piston’s Prelude and Allegro for Organ and Strings were written for this show. Sowerby’s contribution was the Festival Musick for Organ, Brass and Timpani. The opening Fanfare movement, with its dissonant brass, has a slightly pagan splendor while the Chorale is contrastingly serene with the organ paired alternately with trumpet and trombone. The Chorale has an almost early-American flavor-evocative perhaps of shape-note tunes. Humor is the main element in the final Toccata on A.G.O. – the American Guild of Organists. The first two notes of the Guild name are musical notes, but for “O” Sowerby had to “improvise”, so he uses a timpani stroke. The Toccata is a whirlwind journey through a variety of musical styles and the composer gets everything he can out of his “three-note” motif.

According to the excellent notes to this set by Craig Timberlake and David Chalmers, Sowerby wrote over one hundred works for choir and organ and there were a capella works too. These discs contain a variety of the choir/organ works ranging from the intimate to the grandiose. On the former side of the scale there is Lovely Infant, a carol where Sowerby uses the wide spacing of the vocal lines to generate a far-away feeling reminiscent perhaps of the first Christmas. Similarly evocative are the hymns for Epiphany Jesu, Bright and Morning Star and All They From Saba Shall Come. For Easter at the National Cathedral in Washington Sowerby wrote Christians to the Paschal Victim. While not first-rank Sowerby it is a good demonstration of his ability to build up blocks of sound in the service of illustrating the text. On a smaller scale is Turn thou to thy God, slightly conventional and with echoes of Vaughan Williams.

One may be also reminded of Vaughan Williams, but textually, not musically, in listening to An Angel Stood by the Altar of the Temple, where Sowerby sets a text similar to that of RVW’s O Clap Your Hands. But the Sowerby piece has a lightness of texture and feeling very different from that of RVW. Another great English composer, Elgar, may be brought to mind by Sowerby’s setting of Psalm 48 – Great is the Lord. Sowerby wrote this anthem for the centenary of St. James Church (later Cathedral) in Chicago, where he was organist and choir master from 1927 to 1962. He produced a grandiose and impressive work carried by massive blocks of sound. Elgar had also set Psalm 48 for choir and organ as his Op. 67 and later orchestrated it. It is a shame that Sowerby did not do the same.

Sowerby’s setting of the Evening Canticles is one of the gentlest works on these discs. He does not forget that the words of the Magnificat were sung originally by a young girl and not by a cathedral choir and the work has a serenity appropriate to the original situation. The Gloria is not a separate entity but rather a development of the Magnificat proper both musically and emotionally. The succeeding Nunc Dimittis is equally gentle and the service ends with another serene Gloria. O God, the Protector of All was Sowerby’s last published work and is rather conventional, although it has a gentleness typical of the composer. Last but certainly not least of the choral works is Come Holy Ghost. Sowerby here uses his skill at part writing to evoke the Holy Ghost in an almost cinematic fashion. Pictorially, this has to be the highlight of the whole set.

As I have described elsewhere Gloriae Dei Cantores is the Sunday service choir at the Church of the Transfiguration in Orleans, Massachusetts. Under their founding director Elizabeth Patterson, they recorded dozens of CD’s with music ranging from Gregorian Chant to music of the 21st century and have made successful tours all over the world. Their predominant feature is the ability to produce a sound that is both completely reverent and completely ‘professional’ at the same time. In these two discs there are naturally moments when the choir is too distant or indistinct but overall the performances do great service for Sowerby. It should be mentioned that for the last 15 years Richard Pugsley, a soloist on these discs, has ably succeeded Elizabeth Patterson as director of Gloriae Dei Cantores.

In the sacred songs the soloists are drawn from the ranks of the choir and the performances vary in quality, but I feel the music would have been better served if they had all been sung by a single voice. In the works requiring organ, GDC’s regular organist, James E. Jordan, accompanies most of the choral and is the soloist in Festival Musick – in both roles he is excellent. David Chalmers, who plays the solo organ works, tends to favor slower tempi, which does not always work, but his registrations are quite authentic.

The main drawback to this set is the obvious fact that the recordings date from more than twenty years ago. The sound quality is good for the time, but it lacks the color and polyphonic detail that up to date recording would provide. But given the relative paucity of Sowerby recordings, we can safely recommend this set all lovers of American music.

William Kreindler

Previous review (original release): John Quinn

Great is the Lord (1933) [8:30]
Three Psalms for Bass (1928)
Hear My Cry, O God [5:53]
The Lord is My Shepherd [4:33] How Long Wilt Thou Forget Me [5:05]
Turn Thou to Thy God (1957) [6:40]
Whoso Dwelleth (1935?) [7:24]
Carillon (1917) [7:35]
An Angel Stood by the Altar of the Temple (1955) [5:19]
Arioso (1942) [9:08]
Lovely Infant (1963) [2:23]
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in E minor (1957) [9:11]
All They from Saba Shall Come (1934) [5:01]
Jesu, Bright and Morning Star (1958) [3:08]
Canon, Chacony and Fugue (1948) [11:53]
Songs of Faith and Penitence (1933)
O God of Light [3:48]
Thou Art My Strength [4:26]
Prelude on Were You There? (1953-4) [9:16]
Christians to the Paschal Victim (1965) [4:51]
Festival Musick (1953) [20:34]
Fanfare [5:22]
Chorale [7:23]
Toccata on A.G.O. [8:18]
Come, Holy Ghost (1949) [4:37]
Bright, Blithe and Brisk (1965) [4:33]
O God, the Protector of All (1968) [2:14]

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