Ian KING (1962-2020)
Music for Gloucester Cathedral
The Gloucester Service (2016):
Nunc dimittis [5:10]
We beseech Thee, Almighty God (Collect for the Fifth Sunday of Lent) (2017) [2:35]
O clap your hands (2012) [2:52]
O God, who by the leading of a star (Collect for Epiphany) (2020) [2:25]
Jubilate (2015) [3:53]
The Gloucester Girls’ Service (2017):
Nunc dimittis [2:54]
Almighty and everliving God (Collect for Candlemas) (2019) [2:03]
The Christmas Truce (2018) [12:43]
God, who as at this time (Collect for Whitsunday) (2019) [2:55]
The St. John Passion (2014) [28:41]
Almighty God, give us grace (Collect for the First Sunday in Advent) (2010) [4:44]
Nia Llewelyn Jones (Girls' Service), Jonathan Hope (organ)
Gloucester Cathedral Choir/Adrian Partington
rec. June 27-29, 2021, Gloucester Cathedral, Gloucester, UK
SOMM RECORDINGS SOMMCD0649 [82:22]
I should declare an interest at the outset of this review. Towards the end of 2020 I conducted an extensive interview with Ian King and, following on from this, I was asked to write the booklet notes for this CD. Ian King was terminally ill by the time I first became involved in this project and, in fact, I never even spoke to him on the telephone, let alone met him. The interview was conducted by email and, latterly, after he had been admitted to a hospice in Worcester, by text. Yet, despite the gravity of his illness he remained actively engaged with the interview, suggesting additions and changes until shortly before his death. I understand that he was equally involved in communicating about the recording project with Adrian Partington: the ordering of the pieces on the CD, for example, was something in which he was closely involved. I refer readers to the interview where you will find detailed comments by Ian King on the music included here, as well as on other pieces.
King had a somewhat unusual musical life story. Born in Hereford, he was a chorister at that city’s cathedral and subsequently he became an organ pupil of Roy Massey, who was at that time the cathedral’s Director of Music. He read music at Oxford University, where he was organ scholar at St Peter’s College. Thereafter, however, he moved away from the church music milieu. Instead, his attention focussed on raising a young family and on contemporary folk music. His wife, Claire, came from a family that was steeped in folk music and with her Ian King performed, until 2016, in a folk band they founded together; he also composed and arranged music in the folk genre. He returned to the field of church music after composing, to commission, a substantial chamber work for the 2011 Three Choirs Festival, held that year in Worcester, where he had made his home for many years This piece, A Worcestershire Song Cycle was a culmination of his classical/folk synthesis. After that he felt the urge to again compose sacred choral music. As he expressed it when I interviewed him in 2020, this change of compositional direction gave him “a real sense of coming full circle back to my true musical home, to things which are deeply ingrained from my early years – but with the additional benefit of all the music I’ve explored in the time between, which provides subtle influences on my writing…. I think there was also some deeper internal need arising within me to return to my musical roots as a cathedral chorister. Why did such an instinct return at this time? I don’t know, but I certainly felt a desire to return to this musical world which I had barely touched for many decades; and perhaps not just a musical world.”
The Evening Canticles entitled The Gloucester Service constitute a fitting opening to this programme. Each year BBC Radio 3 does a live broadcast of the service of Choral Evensong from the Three Choirs Festival. In 2016 Gloucester was the host city and the Festival commissioned Ian King to write the ‘Mag’ and ‘Nunc’ for the broadcast service. This was an important commission and King responded with a very fine setting of these familiar texts. The ‘Magnificat’ opens with joyful, lightly dancing music which recurs several times during the canticle; it makes an immediate appeal. King constantly varies the time signature – a common trait in his music – to excellent effect. He illustrates the words most imaginatively, nowhere more so than at ‘And the rich He hath sent empty away’; here the dark tone of the music makes clear that the rich, careless of the needs of the less fortunate, have got their just desserts. The ‘Glory be’ begins exuberantly but the closing pages are slow and mysterious – and very striking. The ‘Nunc dimittis’ opens with a mystic, almost improvisatory tenor solo, after which the music impressively builds in power. The ‘Glory’ is not the same as in the ‘Magnificat’. The section begins in imposing fashion, but at ‘As it was in the beginning’ the music slows, the part-writing becomes more complex and the music gradually winds down until just a solo treble voice is left. These are deeply impressive canticles. The Gloucester Cathedral choir present them with great conviction and make an unarguable case for The Gloucester Service to achieve a permanent place in the Evensong repertoire: it deserves no less.
Ian King’s other set of Evening Canticles was written to mark, in 2017, the first anniversary of the institution of Gloucester Cathedral’s Girl Choristers. (Since 2021 the Girl Choristers have been fully integrated into the Cathedral choir.) This setting is mainly in unison and there’s a disarming freshness and open-hearted feel to the music. The ‘Magnificat’ is most attractive and in this performance the music’s appeal is enhanced by the bright-toned, responsive singing. The tranquil, meditative ‘Glory’ makes a fine impression. Much of the ‘Nunc dimittis’ is hauntingly beautiful, so it’s a bit of a surprise – in a good way – when a more exuberant mood is established at ‘As it was in the beginning’. Nia Llewelyn Jones inspires her young singers to sing with skill and enthusiasm. Ian King’s intention was that the organ part should never overwhelm the voices and Jonathan Hope’s sensitive playing ensures that this objective is met.
The Girl Choristers team up with the boy trebles for Jubilate. This is great fun. The singers are mainly in unison but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t challenged by the music. To make its effect, the piece needs singing which is disciplined but which sounds uninhibited. That’s just what happens here. The cathedral’s young singers deliver the music with great zest and I defy anyone to listen without a smile on their face. The full choir is on duty for O clap your hands. This is the piece with which Ian King’s relationship with Gloucester Cathedral Choir began; he sent it ‘on spec’ to Adrian Partington and the rest as they say, is history. The piece is brim full of rhythmic drive and the present performance is incisive and confident.
The St. John Passion dates from 2014 and it was composed to meet a very specific need. The Precentor of Gloucester Cathedral commissioned it so that at the solemn liturgy on Good Friday the Gospel could be sung rather than read. Ian King set the Passion Gospel of St John as prescribed for Good Friday, in its entirety, using the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Because the setting is designed for liturgical use there are no arias or choruses; we just hear the Gospel itself. The choir has two functions: they sing the words of the Crowd; and in the passages where Jesus sings, they provide a hummed accompaniment to his singing, which is most effective. In an unusual move, Ian King split the narration between three solo voices: a tenor, a bass and an alto. He did this in the interests of variety so that the listener would get a fresh focus at different points in the story. Helpfully, SOMM have split the recording into seven tracks and each time a different voice takes over the narration a new track begins. Much of the music is restrained and somewhat austere in tone – and rightly so – although the words of Jesus are compassionately lyrical. Above all, the setting is direct in nature; King communicates the story, letting the words have primacy. I found that, as I listened, I was more and more drawn into the Passion story, which is just as it should be. The music to which King sets the Crucifixion – tracks 16 and 17 – is very moving. This is an important, eloquent work and I’m not surprised that from 2014 onwards it was sung on every Good Friday in Gloucester Cathedral until Covid restrictions intervened in 2020; I believe it will be reinstated in 2022
The other large-scale work could scarcely be more different. The Christmas Truce is a setting of the poem by Carol Ann Duffy in which she relates the story of the informal truce which took place at Christmas 1914 between German and Allied troops in the trenches in France. It’s an ingenious setting on a number of levels. For one thing, the music is really well imagined and establishes a powerful sense of place – the eerie opening is a choice example of King’s word-painting skill. I also applaud King’s solution to the potential problem of setting a long poem in a manageable length of time. Significant passages of the poem are allocated to a speaker against accompaniment from choir and/or organ. This compresses Duffy’s poem while doing full justice to it and not omitting any text. Incidentally, the narrator here is a member of the choir, Deryck Webb, who does very well. It was Ian King’s preference not to bring in a “guest” narrator, I believe, and the results justify the composer’s conviction. In part of the poem, Carol Ann Duffy references the story that the troops sang traditional carols from their respective heritages. Apart from ‘Stille Nacht’ and ‘The First Noel’ no carols are specifically mentioned in the poem but King takes that as his cue to have the choir sing snatches of a good number of carols as the poem unfolds. We only hear snippets so the effect is of snatches of carols heard on the night air from a distance, just as the soldiers might have experienced them. I think that The Christmas Truce is not only ingenious and effective; it’s also genuinely moving. Furthermore, sentimentality is avoided. When I interviewed him, Ian King told me that the first performance of this work, by these very forces, in 2018 was the best premiere of one of his works that he’d ever heard. Hearing this engaging and committed performance led by Adrian Partington, I can understand why the composer was so enthusiastic.
Between 2017 and 2020 Ian King composed five short a cappella pieces for Gloucester Cathedral Choir; each one was a setting of a Collect and they’re all included here. All are excellent pieces which express and enhance the texts brilliantly. I admire them all very much, though my personal favourite is the Collect for Whitsunday, God, who as at this time. It’s a wonderfully expressive short piece in which the complex chromatic harmonies impart a splendid richness and warmth to the music. Though that is the one which I like the best, the one which strikes me as the finest composition of the five is the Collect for the First Sunday in Advent, Almighty God, give us grace. This is the longest of King’s five settings of Collects and here the music has a particular sense of urgency. The harmonic language is especially intense and Ian King’s music constitutes a very strong response to the texts. Near the end, the music achieves a peak of intensity at the words ‘That in the last day, when He shall come again, We may rise to the life immortal’. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this setting was composed in the last months of Ian King’s life; I suspect that it’s touched by his sense of his own mortality. It's a very appropriate conclusion to this programme.
Adrian Partington and his choir gave the first performance of Almighty God, give us grace at the Eucharist in Gloucester Cathedral on 6 December 2020. By then Ian King was too ill to be present. However, the Covid regulations meant that services were being live streamed from Gloucester Cathedral and so he was able to see and hear the performance. Ten days later, on 16 December 2020, Ian King died.
Until it was suggested to me in 2020 that I might interview Ian King I was ignorant of his music. Since then, I’ve listened to it a great deal – including to pieces not included on this CD – and I’ve come to esteem it very highly. I think it’s particularly pleasing that in the last decade of his life he had that experience of coming home, musically speaking. That’s not to suggest in any way that he turned his back on what he’d achieved on the folk music scene; far from it. However, this return to his musical roots was a very fulfilling one and it resulted in the composition of some extraordinarily fine music. All the pieces on this generously filled CD are well worth the attention of listeners and, even more importantly, of choirs and choir conductors. Some of these pieces have especial stature:
The Christmas Truce is an imaginative and moving piece; The St John Passion
is a notable addition to the Lenten liturgical repertoire; and The Gloucester Service is, I think, among the very finest recent settings of the Evening Canticles.
Every piece on this CD is here recorded for the first time and Ian King’s music was in the safest hands. Jonathan Hope’s organ contributions are unfailingly excellent. The members of the Gloucester Cathedral Choir have clearly taken this music to their hearts: they sing with skill and great commitment. Adrian Partington clearly believes in this music and directs the performances with flair and attention to detail. I can attest to the attention to detail in these performances because I’ve been able to access scores with ease. Vocal scores of these and other works are all available to download free of charge from Ian King’s website. That should make it very easy for choirs to investigate his music; I hope many will do so, and perform it.
These excellent performances have been expertly recorded by engineer Ben Connellan and producer Siva Oke. The acoustic of Gloucester Cathedral is resonant and as such, presents challenges. Ben Connellan has balanced the choir and organ very successfully. He has also made intelligent use of the acoustic. I got a very good sense of the building’s space, yet clarity was never compromised.
Ian King’s music deserves widespread attention. This excellent CD is an ideal introduction to his work.