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James WHITBOURN (b. 1963)
The Seven Heavens (2014/2016), chamber version [32:10]
Ada (2015) [6:15]
Video caelos apertos (2014) [4:18]
The Voices Stilled (2013) [5:45]
Eternal Rest (2002/2017) [4:19]
Gratias agimus tibi (2015) [2:11]
Canticle of Mary (2011) [6:28]
Canticle of Simeon (2011) [4:04]
Cor Cantiamo/Eric A. Johnson
rec. 2017, Boutell Memorial Concert Hall, Northern Illinois University, USA
DIVINE ART DDA25192 [65:34]

The major work on this CD is The Seven Heavens, composed and revised between 2014 and 2016. The basic concept of this piece is ‘a musical portrait of C. S. Lewis portrayed in the imagery of the mediaeval planets’. Few readers of these pages will be unaware of the important contribution of Lewis to theology, medieval literature and children’s books. Most of us have read at least some of the Narnia Chronicles. Others will have been helped by his practical and compassionate ‘apologetic’ approach to the intricacies of theological matters.

The liner notes give full details of the work’s progress. This includes an introductory text to each movement written by the C. S. Lewis scholar Dr Michael Ward. This places Lewis’s life in chronological episodes. Each of them relates to the attributes associated with one of the medieval planets (The Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn and the Sun), or the ‘Seven Heavens’. The sung texts are derived largely from the Orphic Hymns (The Hymns of Orpheus), translated into English by Thomas Taylor (1792). Also featured are extracts from William Shakespeare, Joseph Addison, the Psalmist, Thomas Lodge, St John, Percy Bysshe Shelley and C. S. Lewis himself.

Musically, this eclectic score sounds like a synthesis of everything I have ever heard from the western choral tradition – old and new. That is no bad thing. It makes for an approachable work, enjoyable and satisfying from first note to the last. There is much beauty in these pages. The listener will be inspired and moved.

The Seven Heavens was originally written for a massive orchestra with the organ of the Ulster Hall in Belfast, where the work was premiered during the 2014/2015 season as part of the 140th anniversary of the Belfast Philharmonic Choir. A reduction for choir and chamber orchestra was made two years later. It is this version that is heard on this disc.

I wonder if Dr Ward’s texts could have been spoken before each section. There certainly seems to be a little extra room on this CD.

I found Ada a little insipid. The choir is accompanied by violin and harp: I wonder if this was necessary. The piece is a tribute to Lord Byron’s only legitimate child, Ada Lovelace, with the text taken from Byron’s long poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. I guess that few people read these long narrative poems today, but this extract is both tender and melancholy. The music was written in 2015 in response to a request from one of Ada’s descendants. Unsurprisingly, Whitbourn has used the notes A-D-A as a major constructive motif in this piece.

Video caelos apertos was specially commissioned to mark a visit from the Medina High School, Ohio to St Stephen’s House, Oxford in 2014. The title reflects St Stephen’s words as quoted in the Acts of the Apostles, shortly before his martyrdom: ‘I see the heavens opened’. The anthem begins with a plainchant melody, before expanding into music which reflects a text from Revelation: ‘You are worthy, O Lord our God, to receive glory and honour and power’. The liner notes state that the composer has used ‘mensural devices beloved of medieval composers’. In this context, I am not sure what is meant. I guess the definition implies that the ‘symbols’ give the exact value of the notes and the rests, as opposed to plainsong which has no measurable pulse. But without seeing the score…

I am not sure about the eclectic, if not eccentric, nature of The Voices Stilled. Ostensibly a setting of the Agnus Dei, the music incorporates the viola which at one point echoes the Last Post. I guess it was appropriate for its original inception as a memorial piece for the commencement of the Great War. The choral music is ravishing, but the ‘band’ is an intrusion.

Eternal Rest was originally an orchestral number written for broadcast during Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother’s funeral in 2002. Fifteen years later Whitbourn recomposed the work for choir and organ. It sets these words: ‘Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord. And light perpetual shine upon them.’ This beautiful setting is, for me, the highlight of this CD. A perfect fusion of text, voices and organ. It is a work that is fully in the tradition of Anglican Church Music.

Gratias agimus tibi is as setting of the college grace of St Stephen’s College Oxford. This is now sung at all college high days and holy days. Scored for choir without accompaniment, it is an effective and inspiring little piece. The timeless nature of this setting reflects both the medieval (Gothic) revival structure of the college (1876) and a more contemporary aesthetic.

The two final pieces are effectively a setting of the Anglican Mag and Nunc Dim. To highlight the Jewish heritage of the text, Whitbourn has introduced some sinuous melodies played on the viola: I am not convinced that this works. The organ part, on the other hand, is demanding and totally effective.

The liner notes give a detailed account of each work, including texts and translations. There are the usual biographies of the composer and performers. Further details on James Whitbourn can be found in his excellent website. I was unable to find who played the violin, the viola or the organ. The performance by Cor Cantiamo is superb in every way.

John France
 



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