Sir Edward BAIRSTOW (1874-1946)
Our Father in the Heavens
Blessed city, heavenly Salem [8:44]
Lord, I call upon thee (1916) [4:22]
The Lamentations [8:06]
Though I speak with the tongues of men [5:11]
The Blessed Virgin’s Cradle Song [2:34]
Let all mortal flesh keep silence (1906) [3:28]
Lord, thou hast been our refuge (1907) [8:41]
Our Father in the Heavens (1932) * [3:40]
The King of love my shepherd is [5:54]
If the Lord had not helped me (1910) [6:25]
Save us, O Lord [4:38]
Jesu, grant me this I pray (1925) [3:40]
Of the father’s love begotten (1913) * [6:55]
Tewkesbury Abbey Schola Cantorum/Simon Bell
Carleton Etherington (organ)
rec. 2019, Tewkesbury Abbey, UK
REGENT RECORDS REGCD543 [72:20]
The town of Tewkesbury lies some 11 miles to the north of Gloucester. Its dominant feature is the magnificent Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin. This splendid example of Norman architecture is all that remains of a Benedictine monastery. The majestic Abbey building can stand comparison with many of England’s cathedrals. Tewkesbury Abbey boasts two choirs: the SATB Abbey Choir, which is directed by Carleton Etherington, sings weekend services while the weekday Evensongs are sung by the all-male Schola Cantorum, which is run by Simon Bell. The Schola Cantorum have made a number of CDs over the last few years, quite a few of which I’ve heard. This, their latest, is devoted to the music of Sir Edward Bairstow.
Bairstow was an important figure in Anglican church music in the first half of the twentieth century. Born in Huddersfield in West Yorkshire, he studied in London and at the universities of Oxford and Durham. His first significant appointment was as organist and choirmaster of Wigan Parish Church in 1899. From Wigan he moved up the ladder to a similar position at Leeds Parish Church in 1906 before securing the post of organist and Master of Music at York Minster in 1913. He remained at the Minster until his death, although in the last few months of his life illness obliged him to delegate his duties to his deputy and eventual successor, Francis Jackson. From 1929 he combined his work at York with the duties of Professor of Music at Durham University. As a composer, I don’t believe that Bairstow ranged more widely than organ works and choral music for liturgical use. This disc contains a good sample of his choral pieces. I know of one other all-Bairstow disc, a programme recorded by David Hill and the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge back in 2007 (review). Happily, only five pieces are common to both discs, so collectors who already have that Hyperion CD won’t be faced with too much duplication.
The Tewkesbury programme opens with Bairstow’s best-known composition, the impressive Blessed city, heavenly Salem. The performers grasp the opportunity to set out their stall in some style. The piece demonstrates Bairstow’s penchant for dramatic gestures and for the use of dynamic contrasts for expressive effect. Simon Bell’s well-trained choir makes the most of the dynamics and I liked, for example, the robust singing of the tenors and basses at ‘Bright thy gates of pearl are shining’. The opening line of the penultimate stanza opens with the words ‘Many a blow and biting sculpture’; the combination of the text and the music to which Bairstow sets it is an open invitation to the choir to show the quality of their attack and the Tewkesbury singers need no second bidding. This passage is one of several in which Carleton Etherington shows us the potency of the Abbey’s Milton organ. The last stanza of the text is set to tranquil music and there’s an important treble solo. This is sung by Cassian Pichler-Roca and he does the solo very well indeed. That shouldn’t be a surprise, though; not long before the sessions for this CD Cassian was named as BBC Radio 2’s Young Chorister of the Year. Remarkably, that’s the second time that a member of this choir has won that title.
Another member of the Tewkesbury treble section is heard as soloist in The Blessed Virgin’s Cradle Song. This is a fairly early work, scored just for trebles with organ accompaniment. Though no composition date is given, the words that Bairstow set were written by a clergyman who ministered at Wigan Parish Church, so it seems a reasonable inference that the work dates from Bairstow’s time there. The setting is disarming and the trebles sing it really well. Towards the end Tomos Bowen snigs the solo passages very nicely.
Bairstow’s setting of verses from the Lamentations of Jeremiah is quite well known. The texts are set to psalm-like chants and the work is bound together by a refrain ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem’, which occurs three times. The chants are well delivered here and I like very much the shrewdness of Carleton Etherington’s organ accompaniment. The unaccompanied anthem, Let all mortal flesh keep silence is well established in the repertoire. It’s a very strong, eloquent piece and the notes rightly draw attention to the three cries of ‘Alleluia’ near the end; these – and the silences between them – show Bairstow’s propensity for effective dramatic touches.
Less familiar, I imagine, will be the two works which are here recorded for the first time. Our Father in the Heavens is a setting of a metrical version of The Lord’s Prayer. It’s for unaccompanied choir and I found it a very interesting piece, not least on account of the harmonic surprises which the liner notes warn us to expect. I’m glad that this piece has now achieved a recording and, if anything, I’m even more pleased that Of the father’s love begotten has made it on to disc. This was Bairstow’s first composition in the hymn-anthem genre. He takes the familiar ancient melody and uses it as the basis for some inventive variations. We’re told in the notes that during the second verse, in which only the trebles sing, the tune is “barely perceptible” in the organ bass. So delicate is the scoring that it is very hard to discern the melody. In the final verse Bairstow pulls out all the stops with some spectacular choral writing. At this point the organ part is truly imposing, especially as delivered by Carleton Etherington, who uses the Milton organ’s resources to the full.
Equally impressive is Lord, thou hast been our refuge. This was composed for the Festival of the Sons of the Clergy. I think I’m right in saying that this takes place in St Paul’s Cathedral; if so, presumably Bairstow conceived the music for that vast space and acoustic. The piece incorporates some very dramatic gestures in the writing for both the choir and the organ. The piece comes off very well indeed in this performance. In a different vein, but no less effective, is Jesu, grant me this I pray. Bairstow wrote this unaccompanied choral piece for Westminster Abbey, as a contribution to a collection of descants and faux-bourdons which the Abbey’s organist was compiling. Bairstow uses a melody by Orlando Gibbons, his Song 13, as the basis for his offering. After a simple statement of Gibbons’ tune in verse one Bairstow then shows considerable contrapuntal skill as he elaborates on the tune in the verses that follow. However, this is no display piece for its own sake and the final verse is touchingly pensive in tone.
This is a fine collection of music by Sir Edward Barstow. Looking back at my review of the St John’s College disc, referenced earlier, I see that I said this: “Without exception [the pieces] are expertly crafted and show a discriminating ability on Bairstow’s part to respond to texts”. I think that judgement holds good for the present programme also. The standard of performance is uniformly high. Simon Bell has clearly trained his choir very well and they sing this music with skill and assurance. More than that, his direction of the music inspires his singers to deliver the pieces with great commitment. The contributions of organist Carleton Etherington are splendid, evidencing his great knowledge of the Abbey’s Milton organ.
Regent’s engineers have created a very credible aural image of the choir and the organ within the acoustic of Tewkesbury Abbey. They’ve also succeeded in achieving a very good balance between voices and organ. The documentation is good and includes succinct, valuable notes by Philip Moore. I imagine that this is the same Philip Moore who was Bairstow’s successor-but-one as Director of Music at York Minster; he succeeded Francis Jackson in 1983, serving until 2008. If I’m right in that supposition then it’s fitting that he should be invited to write about the music of Bairstow.
This rewarding disc provides further evidence of the excellent musical standards at Tewkesbury Abbey. Let us hope that these standards will resume seamlessly once the Covid emergency has relented to the extent that normal service can be resumed in Britain’s churches and cathedrals.