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Wilby passion RES10298
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Philip WILBY (b. 1949)
God’s Grandeur (2017) [4:37]
The Knaresborough Service (2014) [9:49]
An English Passion according to Saint Matthew (2018) [53:18]
Mhairi Lawson (soprano); Helen Charlston (mezzo-soprano); Thomas Elwin (Jesus - tenor); Sean Boylan (Judas & Pilate – baritone); Ben McAteer (Peter – baritone)
Jack Wilson (organ); David Leigh (chamber organ)
Belfast Cathedral Choir/Matthew Owens
rec. June 2021, Belfast Cathedral, UK
Texts included
RESONUS RES10298 [67:44]

During his time in charge of the music at the cathedrals of Edinburgh (1999-2004) and Wells (2005-2019) Matthew Owens was a resolute champion of new and recent church music, as his discography, especially with the Wells choir, attests. Since 2019 he has been Director of Music at Belfast Cathedral. We can see from this new disc and an earlier one devoted to Christmas music (review) that his commitment to recent music is undiminished. The cathedral’s choir was reconstituted as a fully professional ensemble of sixteen adult singers (4/4/4/4) in the summer of 2019, coinciding with Matthew Owens’ arrival.

Philip Wilby’s name may be familiar to MusicWeb readers as a composer of music for brass band: over the years we have carried quite a few reviews of his music for that medium. However, choral music has been another very important element in his output and a good selection of his music has been committed to disc. Back in 2012 I reviewed a disc of his choral music on which Matthew Owens conducted the Exon Singers. An earlier disc, also devoted to Wilby’s choral music, was reviewed by Hubert Culot in 2002. In addition, I see that a number of individual pieces have appeared in mixed choral programmes on disc.

The main work on this programme in fact harks back to Matthew Owens’ time at Wells Cathedral; Wilby wrote An English Passion according to Saint Matthew for Owens and the Wells choir. I wonder if it was first performed in a liturgical context on Palm Sunday? That used to be the practice at Wells Cathedral and that’s when I first heard Bob Chilcott’s St John Passion in 2013, which was subsequently recorded (review). John Joubert’s St Mark Passion, premiered on Palm Sunday 2016 and later recorded (review), was another Wells commission. One characteristic shared by all three of these Passion settings is the inclusion of hymns in which the congregation can join. Joubert’s is the most sparing in this respect: he includes just two hymns, both of them traditional ones; one is sung at the end of each of the two parts of his work. Wilby, like Chilcott, uses more hymns and weaves them into the score. However, there’s a crucial difference between the approach of the two composers. Bob Chilcott wrote new, very effective tunes to fit to the texts of some traditional hymns. Wilby’s hymns mix traditional words and some words authored by his librettist, Richard Cooper, and for his melodies he has gone to the English Hymnal of 1906 from which he has selected traditional melodies collected by Vaughan Williams. Though Wilby composed his work in 2018 it’s a nice piece of symmetry that this recording should come out in 2022 as we mark the 150th anniversary of VW’s birth. The melodies have been discerningly chosen; I particularly like the use of Dives and Lazarus for the first hymn and later on the tune Kings Lynn (hymn 3), which is a fine, rolling tune. I have one small disappointment about the recording, though this was completely outside anyone’s control. When the recording was made, Covid-related social distancing regulations were in force in Belfast. This meant that only a small number of singers could take part. The hymns come over well but I’m sure they would have achieved their full impact if it had been possible to have a large group of singers to give the effect of a congregation.

Apart from the hymns, the libretto which Wilby sets, skilfully fashioned from St Matthew’s Gospel by Richard Cooper, just presents the narrative. There are no choruses or arias in which the Passion story is reflected upon. The narration is shared between the soloists with the exception of the tenor, who sings the role of Jesus. The choir also have some narrative passages. The music to which Philip Wilby sets the story is dramatic and effective. When I describe the music as ‘dramatic’ I don’t mean that everything is full-on: far from it. Wilby responds very acutely to the text. So, for example, the episode where Christ is before Pilate is fast-paced and very intense – especially at the end where the crowd call for the release of Barabbas. On the other hand, the section in Part II which tells of the Crucifixion is austerely beautiful.

The death of Christ is very thoughtfully depicted and immediately after it we hear, a cappella, the hymn ‘When I survey the wondrous Cross’; unusually, it’s set – effectively - to the tune ‘O Waly, Waly’, Though this is listed as one of the hymns I wonder how feasible it will be for congregational use since the excellent harmonisation is quite complex in places and needs to be heard to make its proper effect. The Passion ends with the recessional hymn, ‘It is a thing most wonderful’ which deliberately strikes a note of confidence and hope. The tune Herongate, sturdy as English oak, is ideally chosen.

I should mention the music which opens each of the Passion’s two parts. Part I begins with the Collect for Palm Sunday, which is sung a cappella by the choir. Wilby’s music is very beautiful; my only slight reservation is to wonder if the lovely, quite complex harmonies and finely spun contrapuntal lines don’t slightly obscure the clarity of the words. Something of the same thing happens at the start of Part II where the singers tell us of Golgotha. The unaccompanied choral writing is subdued and intense; the music is both moving and beautiful but once again, the words aren’t ideally clear.

Elsewhere, however, the diction is very clear. The writing for the soloists is often challenging, but the challenges are always to good purpose. Wilby’s solo writing is often taut, though when required the music can blossom into winning arioso-style writing. The solo parts demand accomplished singers and Matthew Owens has assembled a strong team. Thomas Elwin’s very fine contributions as Jesus especially caught my attention but, in truth, he's primus inter pares. The choir also does very well indeed and though the forces are quite small in number one is not conscious of a small choir because all the singers are professionals. The two organists also make important contributions. Generally speaking, the chamber organ accompanies the narration and the main organ is reserved for the hymns and other ensembles – though I don’t think that division of responsibilities is rigid.

Philip Wilby’s Passion setting is a fine achievement. I admired it and found it moving. I can’t imagine that it could have received a better debut recording than this one, directed with evident understanding and authority – and a sure sense of dramatic pacing – by Matthew Owens.

As a Yorkshireman myself, I was delighted to see that the other two works on the disc reflect Philip Wilby’s strong roots in God’s Own Country (he was born in Pontefract and spent much of his career in senior roles in the music department of Leeds University). God’s Grandeur, a setting for choir and organ of the poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, was composed for the choir of Ripon Grammar School. It’s a short, impressive piece. The choral writing is fine and varied while the independent organ part is very inventive. As the title makes clear, The Knaresborough Service has a North Yorkshire connection too. This ‘Mag and Nunc’ was composed for the Parish Church of St John the Baptist, Knaresborough. These canticles are right in the English tradition – you can sense a debt to Herbert Howells, an early influence on Wilby. The choral writing in the Magnificat is most effective and I particularly like the use of three solo soprano voices towards the end; the music given to these singers has an appropriately feminine quality. Some of the music, however, is very strong, not least the ‘Glory be’, which is impressively affirmative. The music in the Nunc dimittis is warm and largely tranquil, though it expands briefly at ‘to be a light to lighten the Gentiles’. The ‘Glory be’ from the Magnificat is reprised, which is welcome. This is a most attractive set of the Evening Canticles; I hope a lot of choirs will take The Knaresborough Service into their repertoire.

I enjoyed and admired all the music on this fine disc. The performances are consistently excellent and producer/engineer Adam Binks has recorded the music most successfully. Resonus have provided a comprehensive booklet which contains valuable notes by Nigel Simeone as well as a short introduction by the composer. The full texts are provided. Unfortunately, the booklet is printed in a very small font indeed, which I found very difficult to read. I completely understand that a larger font would mean more pages in the booklet, which has cost implications; but when the booklet contents are valuable it’s a shame that they’re so hard to read without eye strain. This, though, is my only complaint about an excellent release.

John Quinn

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