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Now the Green Blade Riseth: Choral Music for Easter
Matthew Martin, Paul Greatly (organ)
The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge/Daniel Hyde
rec. 28-29 June, 1-2 July 2021, King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, UK KING’S COLLEGE KGS0065 [77:05]
It is the most important festival in the Christian calendar, yet Easter has not attracted the same enthusiastic musical response from composes over the past few centuries as has Christmas; even the penitential season of Lent seems to have inspired composers more than the great outpouring of joyousness which is Easter. Most recordings of Easter music have with been tacked on to CDs of “Music for Passionate and Easter” (in which the former season gets the lion’s share of the memorable music) or incorporated into church-style services; a fabulous Priory CD of Hereford Cathedral doing an Easter Day Evensong under Roy Massey and with David Briggs at the organ, which was released in 1988, remains one of the most glorious Easter CDs. This release of “Choral Music for Easter” from the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, falls very much into the former category, with just seven of the 18 tracks given over to genuine music for Easter. It is, however, presented somewhat in the manner of a church service, interspersing short anthems with hymns (all accompanied here by Paul Greatly) and framing the whole with an organ prelude and organ postlude played by Matthew Martin.
The brief, improvisatory prelude is a celebratory Fanfare by Martin himself which almost overwhelms the choir’s entry in George Malcolm’s Ingrediente Domino, a joyous setting of the Antiphon for the Palm Sunday procession. The first hymn is a traditional Palm Sunday one, Ride on! Ride on in Majesty, followed by a sequence of penitential and reflective anthems appropriate to, if not always directly associated with, the season of Lent and the events of Passion week. These include two settings of texts associated with Maundy Thursday, a beautiful flowing account of Duruflé’s Ubi Caritas, and a delicate, highly sensitive performance of Rossini’s heartfelt and sincere O Salutaris Hostia. The simplicity of Wesley’s short anthem Wash me Throughly is here greatly enhanced by a delightful treble solo and an almost magical transparency of tone from the trebles when they join in. The booklet notes seem to forget that this is intended as a celebration of Easter when referring to Byrd’s Civitas sancti tui and concentrate on its historic place at the interface between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism in Elizabethan England, yet, sung with such intense richness, it here takes on a profound penitential quality. Mrs C F Alexander’s famous hymn There is a Green Hill Far Away continues the Lenten theme. It might be one of the hoary old classics of Lenten services, but has it ever sounded so beautiful as it does here, Daniel Hyde drawing something akin to musical magic from his singers, whose sense of line, clear, unfussy diction, and superb tonal blend defies description? The last verse descant by John Scott, Hyde’s immediate predecessor as Organist at St Thomas’s Church, New York, manages to add a fine sheen without destroying the essence of William Horsley’s straightforward tune.
The next group of anthems again is associated with Passiontide, beginning with Lotti’s six-part Crucifixus with a discreet organ accompaniment. John Ireland’s classic anthem, one of the truly great anthems of the Anglican repertory, may often be sung at Easter Day, but its text, Greater Love hath no Man, seems more associated with the events of Good Friday, and Hyde’s careful pacing of the piece focuses more on the meditative than the festive, even if the baritone soloist does get a trifle carried away in his short run-up to the climax (2:46). One of the loveliest moments from Stainer’s Crucifixion is the deeply moving God so Loved the World, sung here with something approaching utter perfection. The Good Friday theme is carried on with the hymn When I survey the Wondrous Cross, the tune “Rockingham” sung gracefully and directly, the last verse descant by George Guest wonderfully expansive and, at times, spine-tinglingly satisfying.
With track12 we finally reach Easter, although the English words of the old French carol, Now the Green Blade Riseth, evoke more the awakening of springtime; as does the bird-infused organ accompaniment in Bob Chilcott’s “arrangement”: I put the word in inverted commas since this is, in effect, a wholly original composition with no apparent reference to the original French melody. Original or heavily arranged, this is still a lovely, life-enhancing piece of music, beautifully sung by the King’s College choir and delicately played by Matthew Martin. It is Martin who also is assigned what I have said before, and will say again, is the greatest dominant seventh chord in all church music - that which comes at 6:14 in Wesley’s classic Easter anthem Blessed be the God and Father. When you read that this was first performed by a choir (Hereford Cathedral) comprising trebles and a single bass voice, you can only imagine what Wesley would have thought were he to hear it sung with such sumptuous and fulsome vocal tone. Side-stepping that fine Welsh tune “Gwalchmai”, Hyde looks back to his time at St Thomas’s New York to present a festive setting of the hymn King of Glory, King of Peace by the English organist who settled in New York in 1915 and was organist at St Thomas’s from 1943-1953.
It is inconceivable to have any kind of Easter music programme without that great hymn, Jesus Christ is Risen Today. As with all the hymns on this recording, it is presented clearly, directly, unfussily, and with great care. It is good, too, that Hyde includes a descant (as he does for Ride on! Ride on in Majesty) by one of his predecessors at King’s, Philip Ledger. Often overshadowed by his own illustrious predecessor (David Willcocks), whose last verse harmonisations and descants still very much rule the roost at Christmas, Ledger had that fine ability to retain the real spirit of the tune and simply decorate it with a soaring decant and only moderately modified harmonies. Elgar’s Light of the World, the final chorus from his oratorio Lux Christe, is effectively performed with a most impressive dynamic range from the choir, more than amply supported by the organ, and the final item is Martin Baker’s French-flavoured, rhythmically jagged version of the Gregorian chant Christus Vincit, properly part of the liturgy for the Feast of Christ the King which occurs in November; but its mood of celebration and joy firmly belongs to Easter.
It is a big disappointment to me that the closing organ postlude is not Dupré’s magnificent set of Variations on “Now the Green Blade Riseth” – it would have seemed the obvious choice with a CD given that title. But there is no value in regretting what is not here, especially as there is such an embarrassment of riches. Nevertheless, I find it hard to warm to Tournemire’s rambling exposition of varied organ tone in his improvisation on Victimae Paschali, transcribed by Duruflé. Those who can unravel its elusive pleasures will certainly relish this committed performance from Matthew Martin, and it certainly gives us a grand taste of the splendid King’s College Chapel instrument.
George Malcolm (1917-1997): Ingrediente Domino [2:49]
Anon. desc. Philip Ledger: Ride on! Ride on in Majesty [2:33]
Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986): Ubi Caritas, Op.10 No.1 [2:26]
Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868): O Salutaris Hostia [3:46]
Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810-1876): Wash me Throughly [4:10]
William Byrd (1543-1623): Civitas sancti tui [5:56]
William Horsley (1774-1858) desc. John Scott: There is a Green Hill Far Away [2:21]
Antonio Lotti (1667-1740): Crucifixus à 6 [3:00]
John Ireland (1879-1962): Greater Love Hath No Man [6:14]
John Stainer (1840-1901): The Crucifixion – God so Loved the World [4:02]
Edward Miller (1731-1807) desc. George Guest: When I survey the Wondrous Cross [3:21]
Bob Chilcott (b.1955): Now the Green Blade Riseth [5:15]
Samuel Sebastian Wesley: Blessed be the God and Father [8:04]
T. Frederick H. Candlyn (1892-1964): King of Glory, King of Peace [3:31]
Anon. desc. Philip Ledger: Jesus Christ is Risen Today [2:59]
Edward Elgar (1857-1934): Lux Christe, Op.29 = Light of the World [5:04]
Martin Baker (b.1967): Christus vincit [2:27]
Charles Tournemire (1870-1939) transcr. Maurice Duruflé: Improvisation on Victimae Paschali [9:29]