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Grayston IVES (b. 1948)
Requiem (2008)
Ronan Busfield (tenor)
The Choir of Jesus College, Cambridge
Britten Sinfonia/Richard Pinel
rec. March 2020, Chapel of Jesus College, Cambridge, UK
Latin text & English translation included

Grayston (Bill) Ives has had a long and distinguished career in English choral music, both as a performer and composer. A music graduate of Selwyn College, Cambridge, he was a member of The King’s Singers between 1978 and 1985. From 1991 until 2009 he served as Informator Choristarum (Director of Music) at Magdalen College, Oxford. He has a string of musical compositions to his credit, mostly in the sphere of church music.

With this work, first performed in 2008, Bill Ives joins the long list of English composers who have set the Requiem Mass – one thinks immediately of John Rutter, Bob Chilcott, Gabriel Jackson and Ian Venables, and there are a good number of others besides. The text of the Mass for the Dead exerts a strong attraction to composers – and by no means just to English composers, of course. Ives’ setting is confined to the standard text of the Mass; he has not followed the precedent of some colleagues by including other words. Indeed, his Requiem is specifically designed for liturgical use and, like the Requiem of Ian Venables, was first heard during the Solemn Requiem for All Souls, a liturgy celebrated each year on 2 November.

Ives’ Requiem exists in two scorings. One, intended specifically for liturgical use, is for organ and harp. The fuller version, recorded here, uses a small orchestra consisting of flute, clarinet, bassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, percussion (1 player), harp, chamber organ and strings. On this recording the Britten Sinfonia strings comprise 4/3/2/2/1. I should say at once that the orchestral scoring is fastidious, colouring the music expertly and complementing the choral parts in an ideal fashion.

Jesus College, Cambridge actually boasts two choirs. The Chapel Choir involves trebles and the College Choir has female sopranos on the top line: the altos, tenors and basses are common to both ensembles. Here, the two choirs combine to excellent effect.

Ives’ setting is, for the most part, calm and consolatory in tone, though he makes the most of a couple of opportunities for dramatic writing. I haven’t seen a score but, just from listening, I have the impression that a number of thematic motifs crop up more than once during the work. That’s certainly the case with the music to which he sets the words ‘Requiem aeternam’ in the Introit. Something else that crops up more than once is the very delicate sound of a pair of tiny hand-held cymbals; we hear them right at the start and on several other occasions. Ives bought them from some Tibetan monks when he was visiting Snape Maltings in 2008. (In passing, I wonder how easy it will be for other ensembles to find these instruments when they are asked to accompany performances by other choirs.)

The first of the eight movements is ‘Introit – Kyrie’. Right from the start the music is mellifluous, melodic and calm; we shall encounter these qualities often as the work unfolds. Ives’ music is lyrical and consoling, though there’s a quicker flow at ‘Te decet hymnus’ The tone is more beseeching for the ‘Kyrie’. The next movement, the longest, is ‘O Domine, Jesu Christe’. Here the text invites more variety of musical expression and Ives responds appropriately. There is some dramatic writing in places but I especially like the warm, lyrical writing at ‘Quam olim Abrahae promisisti’. This movement also contains the only passage in the work that uses a solo voice; there’s a lovely passage for the tenor at ‘Hostias et preces’. For this, Ronan Busfield steps forward from the choir; he sings very well.

Ives provides a short, joyful setting of the ‘Sanctus’. The ‘Benedictus’, which is unaccompanied, makes interesting use of deliberately broken melodic lines. The ‘Pie Jesu’ is very beautiful, founded on a gorgeous melodic line which is introduced by the trebles alone. The orchestral writing in this movement is delectable. The movement, which is tranquil throughout, gives yet more evidence of Bill Ives’ melodic gifts. The sixth movement links together the ‘Agnus Dei’ and the ‘Lux Aeterna’. The ‘Agnus Dei’ is most attractive with flowing lines in both the choral and orchestral writing. Fittingly, the music is somewhat more luminous for the ‘Lux Aeterna’ section and towards the close Ives reprises the music we heard at the very beginning of the work when he reaches the words ‘Requiem aeternam’.

The penultimate movement is ‘Libera me’. Right at the start we hear little fanfares played by the trumpets and the side drum; this material is strongly reminiscent of an instrumental motif in Britten’s War Requiem. The text invites a dramatic setting and that’s what Ives supplies, firstly with hushed, apprehensive music and subsequently with music that, through strong dynamic contrasts and punchy rhythms, makes a rather more overtly dramatic impression. After all this drama flute, bassoon and harp gently usher us back to another reprise of the ‘Requiem aeternam’ material. The last movement, ‘In Paradisum’, is serene with the melody principally carried by the trebles and sopranos. It’s a lovely end to the work.

I enjoyed and admired this setting of the Requiem. It bears similarities with settings by several other British composers but Bill Ives is his own man and the music exhibits many ways in which he puts his individual stamp on the familiar texts. This, I’m sure, is the first recording of the work and Ives has been splendidly served. The singers of Jesus College sing with sensitivity and excellent discipline while the playing of the Britten Sinfonia is first rate from start to finish. Richard Pinel, the Director of Music at Jesus College since 2017, has history with the work. A former Organ Scholar of Magdalen College, Oxford (from 2002), he assisted Bill Ives with the work’s 2008 premiere. I’m sure this was a recording that he really wanted to make and he secures a performance of great commitment.

The recording was in the hands of Chris Hazell (producer) and Mike Hatch (engineer) and they’ve done an excellent job; the recorded sound is very good indeed, showing the performers and the music in optimum light.

My only reervation is that the playing time of the CD is very short indeed. A full price CD should play for quite a bit longer. I suspect that the onset of Covid restrictions was the key factor; the sessions took place just as the UK was about to lock down for the first time. If that’s the reason for the short playing that’s understandable. I wish, though, that it had been possible to add one or two more of Bill Ives’ liturgical pieces for choir at subsequent sessions, even if this had delayed the release of the CD.

However, that one caveat doesn’t stop me from giving a warm welcome to this recording. I hope that it will make more choirs aware of Bill Ives’ fine Requiem, encouraging others to follow the example of Jesus College, Cambridge by performing it.

John Quinn

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