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Julian ANDERSON (b. 1967)
My beloved spake (2008) [4:26]
Bell Mass (2010) [16:34]
O sing unto the Lord (1999) [6:13]
I saw Eternity (2003) [4:54]
Four American Choruses (2002-3) [16:50]
Girolamo FRESCOBALDI (1583-1643)
Toccata quarta (1627) [5:37]
Nunc Dimittis (2017) [7:13]
Choir of Gonville and Cauius College, Cambridge/Geoffrey Webber
rec. 2017, Merton College Chapel, Oxford
DELPHIAN DCD34202 [61:54]

Julian Anderson has won a considerable reputation for his orchestral music (review ~ review ~ review) but this is the first disc of his choral music. Actually, there is not yet quite enough to fill a CD, and an organ piece by Frescobaldi has been brought in; also one of the works has been recorded before. But no matter: this is a fascinating disc and shows Anderson to have real flair as a composer of choral music.

Many composers and other musicians were choristers in their youth, and this obviously gave them a flying start. Anderson was not, and he admits that “choral music wasn’t my background” in the sleevenotes here. However, after composing two of these works he joined the London Philharmonic Choir and continued to sing with them for some years. No one would guess that he was not familiar with what choirs could do, even from the two earlier works, but you can hear the greater confidence and boldness that came with his increasing familiarity with the idiom in the later works.

The first work here, My beloved spake, was in fact written for the wedding of two members of the London Philharmonic Choir. It sets passages from the Song of Songs in a modal idiom, slightly reminiscent of Peter Maxwell Davies’s choral works, deliberately simple but distinctive and attractive. Interjections on the organ are more chromatic and fluid.

The Bell Mass was written for Westminster Abbey. It is a Missa Brevis, i.e. without a Credo. Anderson considers himself “a very religious agnostic”, which puts him in the same company as Vaughan Williams, who also wrote a good deal of liturgical music, including a lovely setting of the mass, without actually being a believer. This one is inspired by bell sounds, which are evoked at various points in the work, beginning with the Kyrie. The Gloria starts straight in, without any intonation by the priest; its leaping lines are reminiscent of Tippett. The Sanctus is exultant but also remote and unearthly, with passages of dazzling brightness and jagged lines on the organ. The Benedictus is quiet and contemplative but harmonically weird, with notes included from the natural harmonic series which are not in our normal tempered scales. The Agnus begins with stuttering fragments, like some of late Stravinsky, and there is something of Messiaen in the winding organ line too. It gathers strength to become a vocal version of a peal of bells before the sopranos disappear into the heavens. This is a remarkable work.

O sing unto the Lord is the earliest work here It was commissioned for the annual service of St Cecilia’s Day (22 November and Benjamin Britten’s birthday) by Westminster Cathedral. It sets passages from Psalms 96 and 98, not in the usual version from the Book of Common prayer but from the King James Bible. Here we find the young composer fully in command of his material and already working out his own idiom.

I saw Eternity sets the three lines which open Henry Vaughan’s ‘The World’. It is written in what Anderson calls “vision form”, which is a binary single movement structure suggested by some works of Lutosławski. There is a single melody which appears in different lines and with different rhythms; it reaches the moment of vision and then quickly disappears. The effect is similar to that of ‘To you who gaze, a lamp am I,’ from Holst’s Hymn of Jesus, and the feeling of the work is somewhat similar.

The Four American Choruses are very varied and are not necessarily to be sung only as a set. (This is the work which has been previously recorded.) The texts are from gospel hymns. ‘I’m a pilgrim’ is the simplest, and again we notice an emphasis on the word “light”. ‘Beautiful valley of Eden’ is the most complex; the different voices are treated as quite separate groups, separated in space, each with its own speed and its own conductor. The result is not a competition but a sense of radiance. ‘Bright morning star’ is simpler again, but also achieves radiance with its text dealing with the sun. Finally, ‘At the fountain’ has a rich and thick harmonic underlay, somewhat reminiscent of Ligeti’s micropolyphony, above which a solo soprano sings the blues.

After this we have the Frescobaldi organ piece, a strange and unstable work, played by Geoffrey Webber, which fits in quite well.

We end with the most recently composed piece, a setting of the Nunc Dimittis written for the choir on this disc. This is a quite extraordinary work, in which the words disappear into slow chords, another climax on “light”, and finally a dissolve.

The Gonville and Caius Choir have been working up these performances over a period of two years, and this shows in their confident delivery of what sounds like some very difficult music. The recording, made not in their chapel, but in that of Merton College, Oxford, with its excellent acoustics, is exemplary. The sleeve notes are very helpful, though the works are discussed in a different order from that in which they appear on the disc. It would be churlish to make an issue of that: I greatly enjoyed this disc and look to hear more choral music from Anderson. What about, for a start, a setting of the Magnificat to go with that of the Nunc Dimittis?

Stephen Barber
 




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