UNDER A CELTIC SKY: Anthems and folk songs from the corners of the British Isles
Cantemus Chamber Choir / Peter King (organ) / Huw Williams · Regent REGCD502
They are terrible and dreadful. Not the way to start a CD review perhaps, but I have to. Play it and you will see what I mean: your ears are assailed with this line (among others of course) from Stanford’s fine anthem For lo, I raise up that opens this whistle-stop Celtic musical tour of sacred and secular music by Paul Mealor, Philip Stopford, John Rutter, Parry and Britten. Cantemus, a Cardiff-based choir, comes into its own with its singing of the Welsh numbers such as Geraint Lewis’s rich and sonorous The souls of the righteous and William Mathias’s jocular setting of Four Welsh folk songs. Cantemus has a wonderful, mellow blend throughout. Add to that some splendid organ accompaniment from Peter King on the organ of Keble College Chapel, Oxford where this CD was recorded and you have a fine collection. Gary Cole of Regent has beautifully captured the fine quality of this choir in the chapel’s fine acoustic. And, as you’ve guessed, listening to this CD is anything but terrible and dreadful.
EVENSONG FROM YORK MINSTER
Choir of York Minster / Robert Sharpe · Regent REGCD506
There’s a ‘fly on the wall’ feel to this CD that has all the elements of Book of Common Prayer evensong, with organ music beforehand, canticles, two lessons, prayers and a hymn, and finally the closing voluntary. What better way to start than to hear Francis Jackson’s Improvisation – a gentle demonstration of the minster organ’s subtle tone colours! What follows is a demonstration of the versatility of the minster choir under its director, Robert Sharpe. The psalm chanting is effortless and unhurried, with effective organ accompaniment by Benjamin Morris. There are fine performances of Howells’s grand St Paul’s Service and his more reflective O pray for the peace of Jerusalem. I especially like the CD’s thoughtful construction reflecting a church’s dedication festival: the ‘living stones’ theme runs through the choice of readings (Jacob’s dream and Peter’s epistle), Bairstow’s anthem Blessed city and the hymn ‘Ye that know the Lord is gracious’.
The text of the whole service is reproduced in the CD notes, with comprehensive commentary by John Lees. A bonus is Vaughan Williams’s Te Deum in G, and, after the dismissal, a Vierne Toccata that brings this service to a triumphant close.
The Gesualdo Six / Owain Park · Hyperion CDA68256
The Gesualdo Six hardly need a review of this their debut CD: within days of its release around Easter it was top of the iTunes classical chart. The CD is a collection of English Renaissance motets composed over a 200-year period of considerable change in musical fashions combined with religious turbulence. Composers include William Cornysh, Tallis and Byrd of course, Gibbons, Taverner, John Sheppard, Thomas Morley and Thomas Tomkins. The ensemble was formed in 2014 by Owain Park when he was an organ scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge. The group has since made its name touring in the UK and abroad. I heard them singing live earlier this year; theirs is a silky, smooth, fresh sound, and, with just a handful of singers, there’s an intimacy of performance not possible with larger numbers. There’s some nifty singing on this CD – Byrd’s Vigilate is a case in point – and, by contrast, warmth and richness in works such as John Sheppard’s Libera nos, salva nos. Phrasing must be mentioned too: Byrd’s anguished Lenten motets Ne irascaris, Domine and Civitas sancti tui are allowed to be precisely that, with sensitive shaping of phrases. Both motets – and others – are performed at a tempo where the part writing can breathe, and, talking of breathing, there is some masterful breath control here too. With comprehensive, scholarly CD notes from Owain Park, this is an excellent collection.
Choir of King’s College, Cambridge / Stephen Cleobury · King’s College, Cambridge KGS0024
Here is another CD on King’s own label: a fine account of Latin motets composed during the reign of Elizabeth I by William Byrd (c.1540–1623). At the time, Latin motets were banned in church. Yet Byrd managed to lead a double life; privately as a Catholic and outwardly as a loyal professional musician in Lincoln Cathedral and later at the Chapel Royal. On this CD the motets follow the course of the church year. Advent is represented by Rorate caeli and Vigilate. Most of the performances are given by the full choir, but there are a couple of exceptions. The season of Lent for instance is reflected by somewhat brisk but nonetheless superbly voiced performances by the choral scholars of Ne irascaris and Civitas sancti tui. Other motets include Haec dies for Easter and Byrd’s much-loved Ave verum corpus.
A comprehensive and scholarly essay, ‘Byrd the Catholic’ by Iain Fenlon, explains the protracted circumstances in which these motets were written. Listening to them in the spacious acoustic of King’s chapel, Fenlon’s piece serves as an abrupt reminder that in Byrd’s day these motets were performed in clandestine Catholic households. Five hundred years or so later, it’s a dichotomy that’s hard to get one’s head around.
THE KING OF INSTRUMENTS: A VOICE REBORN
Stephen Cleobury plays the organ of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge · King’s College, Cambridge KGS0020
For most of 2016 the organ in King’s was removed for significant restoration, the last having taken place in the 1960s. Over 4000 pipes were cleaned or repaired as were the instrument’s mechanical innards. Some parts were replaced by a newer structure including new slider soundboards using man-made materials. The action, wind and electrical systems were also significantly restored. On this CD, Stephen Cleobury, Director of Music at King’s, celebrates the fruit of this renovation with works by Simon Preston, J.S. Bach, Mendelssohn, Franck, Harvey Grace and George Baker. The CD opens with Simon Preston’s exuberant Alleluyas. J.S. Bach is represented by six contrasting preludes from the Clavierübung III. Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam is a wonderful depiction of that river in a gentle rippling flow – and that is how it stays on this recording: a raging torrent it is not! Kyrie Gott, heiliger Geist, the largest of Bach’s great Kyrie preludes, is given a fairly full treatment. The contrasting movements of Mendelssohn’s F minor Sonata afford an opportunity to show off the restored organ – especially in the glittering final movement. The full power of the instrument is unleashed in Harvey Grace’s Resurgam and George Baker’s Procession Royale. The extent of the restoration work is explained and illustrated in the CD notes. Since this recording was made, Stephen Cleobury’s retirement at the end of September 2019 has been announced, so who knows, there might be another CD recording before then!
MIDNIGHT AT ST ETIENNE DU MONT
Joseph Nolan plays the organ of St-Etienne-du-Mont, Paris · Signum Classics SIGCD470
This CD is all about Maurice Duruflé (1902–86), with his own Suite Op.5 and then David Briggs’s Tombeau de Duruflé. The ground is prepared by Duruflé’s transcription of Tournemire’s Improvisation sur le Te Deum and three pieces by Vierne (including the Scherzo from Symphony No.6 and Final from No.5). It is good to have Duruflé’s Suite complete, with the Toccata following the Prélude and Sicilienne rather than played as what Nolan regrets can be ‘an empty showpiece’ by itself. The Briggs ‘tombeau’ does not reference Duruflé directly but is based on plainchant themes so central to Duruflé, one for each of the eleven moments that are a sort of pilgrimage following the life of Christ (and many of which would work well, played alone at different times of the church’s year). The playing is authoritative, and on the organ where Duruflé was titulaire for nearly 60 years.
David Leigh plays the organ of St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork · Priory PRCD 1190
Here is a recording to fill gaps in your CD library in repertoire and indeed the instrument itself. Lemare’s Symphony No.2 is the biggest work and concludes the disc with 32 minutes of tightly argued, chromatic counterpoint interspersed with lyrical and sometimes lighter moments. There are compositions by local musicians Jonathan Horne and Eoghan Desmond, and, unexpectedly, a pastiche-French Toccata by Fernando Germani. The well-known piece at the centre of the programme is Franck’s Grand Pièce Symphonique for which David Leigh makes an impressive case, musically and technically. It is well worth buying this CD for that performance alone.
ORGAN PARTY VOL. 3
Kevin Bowyer plays the organ of Glasgow University Memorial Chapel
If you have musical friends to whom the organ and its repertoire do not appeal, buy this CD for them. There is an astonishing mixture of music, some by recognizable composers of lighter music including Ernest Tomlinson, Ronald Arnatt and Ernest Bucalossi (with his Grasshoppers’ Dance), some by established organ composers in the UK and USA (among them Ronald Arnatt, Paul Fisher, Charles Proctor). Marco Lo Muscio’s In Memoriam of Messiaen is one of a number of short ‘serious’ pieces. Two of Peter Warlock’s Cod Pieces are preceded by I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts. All 22 tracks are played with a delicious sense of style by Kevin Bowyer who transports the Memorial Chapel organ into ballroom or cinema as required.