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Love Bade Me Welcome
Wadham College Chapel Choir/Katharine Pardee (organ)
Julian Littlewood (organ)
Anne Page (harmonium)
rec. Wadham College Chapel, Oxford, no date given
OXRECS OXCD-147 [70:48]

This is a strangely mixed bag of pieces, some of which work very well and some of which do not. The title of the disc is derived from the famous if ambiguous poem by George Herbert, which is included here in an atmospheric setting made in 1995 by the American composer David Hurd. Another 20th century American work is Leo Sowerby’s setting of verses from Psalm 121. With its fresh-faced, clean-shaven sound, the choir of Wadham College Chapel makes the ideal sound for this kind of repertory, with Bryony Melvor a truly captivating soprano soloist whose diction is absolutely impeccable. Katharine Pardee’s carefully-shaped and neatly-tailored phrasing also brings out the essential simplicity and charm of these pieces, and in the Sowerby Julian Littlewood provides a wonderfully smooth and comfortable accompaniment on the chapel’s newly-restored Willis organ.

But the best single performance in my opinion is Robert Parsons’ well-known setting of Ave Maria. Here the choir traces the texture with such precision, such admirable tuning, such ideal balance and such obvious commitment that I rather wish they had confined themselves to early repertory rather than cast their net as wide as they have. For, at the other end of the scale, we have things which simply do not suit their style of singing. David Overton’s setting of the popular 19th century Scots ballad, Loch Lomond, might suit the King’s Singers (one of whose party-pieces it is) who can ham up the mawkish lyrics and sugar-coated sentimentality of the music, but it manifestly does not suit the clinical, precise style of a choir whose unequivocally English diction makes almost a mockery of the Scots dialect.

In the middle, there are pleasing performances of Holst’s I Love my Love and Bob Chilcott’s My True Love, although the bright polished sound and precisely manicured lines have the feeling of choir drilled for competition, with flawlessness of tone smothering any genuine sense of musical involvement. There is no doubt that this is a highly accomplished vocal group, and the technical challenges of Gabriel Jackson’s Magnificat with its little Celtic ornaments, are superbly met, but much of the singing, after the initial impression of slickness of tone and technical excellence, leaves me rather cold. I hesitate to use the word soulless, but how much better it would have been to sacrifice some of that precision for a few glimpses of genuine feeling.

However, as we read in the desultory booklet note which comes with the CD, the impetus for this recording was not the choir but the fact that, while the pipe organ was being overhauled, the chapel brought in an 1867 French harmonium of unusual power, and on the organ’s return, the presence of the two instruments offered a rare opportunity to record repertory involving both. All well, so far. But since harmoniums were conventionally seen as cheap and relatively portable alternatives to pipe organs, so far as I am aware, nobody has ever written anything for organ and harmonium. So the recording is book-ended by two substantial French works adapted to utilize both the Willis pipe organ and the French harmonium. It just does not work.

The opening work is Vierne’s magnificent Messe Solenelle composed in 1899 for the church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris, where there were two Cavaillé-Coll organs; the marvellous grand organ in the west end gallery and a smaller one in the choir. Vierne’s work makes spectacular use of both the spatial relationship between the organs as well as the church’s opulent acoustic, and to do it justice the work really needs two similarly-voiced organs set apart and surrounded by clouds of resonance. This sounds more as if it was recorded in a hospital pharmacy, where absolute cleanliness of sound and a very intimate relationship between all the performers takes away every last drop of atmosphere. Julian Littlewood has the right sense of grandeur in the organ part, and Anne Page does the best she can with a wheezing harmonium, but this is no substitute for the breathy tones of Cavaillé-Coll flues, and while I am absolutely sure this would have made a fine effect sung live liturgically, on record where we have the opportunity to experience something closer to the composer’s original intentions, I just wish they had not done it. If you want a really impressive recording of the work in the sumptuous atmosphere of a great French church, root out the 2007 recording at Notre Dame on Hortus.

The closing work is an arrangement of Guilmant’s Fourth Organ Sonata made by Page and Pardee (who plays the Willis organ for this) which, again, does not work. I am as avid a fan of Guilmant’s music as anyone, but even I would not claim his Fourth Sonata as a masterpiece, and while it can be played on either organ or harmonium, mixing up the two serves only to break up any sense of coherence the work possesses. Again, the players do their best, and revel in Guilmant’s characteristically charming tunes, but the sound of organ and harmonium in juxtaposition just does not work for me.

Marc Rochester
Disc contents
Louis VIERNE (1870-1937)
Messe Solennelle [24:59]
Gabriel JACKSON (b. 1962)
Truro Service - Magnificat [4:52]
David HURD (b. 1950)
Love Bade me Welcome [2:54]
Robert PARSONS (1535-1572)
Ave Maria [4:30]
Leo SOWERBY (1895-1968)
I Will Lift up Mine Eyes [3:51]
Bob CHILCOTT (b.1955)
My True Love [2:28]
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
I Love my Love [4:44]
Loch Lomond (arr. David Overton) [3:36]
Alexandre GUILMANT (1837-1911)
Sonata No.4, Op.61 [18:37]

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