PATRICK HAWES: REVELATION, BEATITUDES, QUANTA QUALIA
Elora Singers / Leslie De’Ath (piano) / John Johnson (alto saxophone) / Noel Edison · Naxos 8.573720
The music of Patrick Hawes has been reaching a growing audience over the years, performed by Voces8, the Choir of New College, Oxford, cellist Julian Lloyd Webber and the singer Hayley Westenra among others. His output will also be familiar to many listeners of Classic FM. The composer might take me to task for saying so, but his music is redolent of the school of Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen; he has a great sense of line, and the harmonic sequences he generates are pleasantly dissonant.
As Patrick Hawes writes in the CD notes, the Book of Revelation lends itself well to musical interpretation. The movement entitled ‘From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder’ is a powerful case in point. Hawes’s setting of The Beatitudes for choir and piano is nothing short of beautiful. The Elora Singers is a Canadian chamber choir conducted by Noel Edison. Patrick Hawes’s music poses many challenges for the singer and this choir acquits itself well in tone, clarity, diction and above all intonation, which is spot on throughout. This is a superb CD.
Libera / Robert Prizeman · Invisible Hands Music IHCD75
When I wrote about Libera in CMQ several years ago, their conductor Robert Prizeman emphasized that this choir of angelic-looking choirboys on television programmes such as Songs of Praise is, quite simply, a group of ordinary south London lads. The same goes for many other church choristers too, of course, yet Libera’s achievement is extraordinary. With 27 million hits on YouTube, three Classical Brits nominations and worldwide tours, they must be doing something right. This CD – entitled Hope – is their second studio album since 2014 and features 14 religious and secular songs. There are several settings of sacred texts such as Salve Regina – set to Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat in an arrangement by Robert Prizeman, Stabat Mater, Venite Adoremus and Hymn to Mary. Rather than exclusively synthesized backing, the boys are accompanied on this CD by a small orchestra as well as keyboards. The music – and indeed the ‘brand’ – of Libera might not be the purists’ cup of tea, but let’s place on record the indelible place of this ‘alternative boy band’ on the church music scene. This CD makes for a very pleasant listen and is well produced. There’s no questioning the musicianship involved here: confident singing that is sensitive to the texts, and, some equalization notwithstanding, a blend many choir directors would crawl over glass to achieve.
AFTER THE SABBATH
The Choir of Birmingham Cathedral / David Hardie (organ) / Marcus Huxley · Regent REGCD490
Birmingham Anglican Cathedral has acquired a reputation for its innovative projects. Earlier this year Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi wrote How good it is, a very listenable piece for the choir – it’s on YouTube. I thought this CD might be the result of further collaboration but it isn’t. Nonetheless here is a choir in excellent voice and with a wide repertoire. Some work is home-grown: Marcus Huxley, the choir’s director until earlier this year, has composed a fine setting for trebles of the hymn ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’ with a different treatment of each verse including the weaving of a counterpoint around the familiar tune – a technique not far removed from Welsh penillion singing. There’s music by Tallis, Bruckner, Duruflé, Weelkes – his Hosanna to the Son of David – and Taverner, but there’s also more modern fare: a setting of O clap your hands by Bryan Kelly in his inimitable, joyous style. This CD is a fitting testament to Marcus Huxley’s 30 years’ work at the cathedral.
EDWARD ELGAR: ORGAN WORKS
Benjamin Nicholas plays the Dobson organ of Merton College, Oxford · Delphian DCD34162
‘This is essentially an English romantic organ with a big warm-hearted personality, securely grounded in the aesthetic traditions of the late 19th century’ writes Delphian’s blurb writer about the new organ at Merton College, and what better repertoire to test this than Elgar’s organ music! Elgar’s two original organ compositions are included: the Vesper Voluntaries published in 1891 and the symphonic G major Sonata of 1895. To these are added three transcriptions, by W.H. Harris of ‘Nimrod’ from Enigma Variations, by Herbert Brewer of the Prelude to The Kingdom, and by Edwin Lemare of a salon-piece Gavotte (originally for violin and piano).
Benjamin Nicholas makes a strong case for the Vesper Voluntaries, too often consigned as easy fill-in music before an evening service. Their title was not Elgar’s, but one given to a series of volumes of newly-commissioned short pieces useful ‘as Offertory Music, Interludes, or Voluntaries … demanding no special executive skill in their performance.’ Perhaps so, but Nicholas demonstrates how much they benefit by performance with considerable ‘executive skill’. I enjoyed the characterization of each of the eight pieces that form a Suite, at times tender, at times nobly imposing. But this CD will be bought for the Sonata, and rightly so. It has been said that Elgar did not have his own ‘keyboard style’, but instead wrote an orchestral work on three staves. Benjamin Nicholas has the full measure of the music with its imposing climaxes, grand swells and passages of ravishing delicacy and of serenity. The organ, especially its reeds and upperwork, and with two enclosed divisions, sounds as if built for this music, all well captured on the recording.
David Ratnanayagam plays the organ of St George, Gateshead · Broadwater Studios email@example.com
The organ is a 1901 Henry Willis II most recently restored by Harrison & Harrison in 2003. The organist is a former assistant at Durham Cathedral. The music is mostly late 19th or early 20th century (Brahms, Parry, Bairstow, Franck, Vierne, Reger and Guilmant), although also with Mendelssohn and S.S. Wesley, and from the second half of the 20th century William Mathias and Ronald Watson. The organ retains its original Willis tubular-pneumatic action and specification, with only a modern blower and a balanced swell pedal as a concession to a modern player. The repertoire on this CD appears a little dull, but shows the organ at its best, especially given the Swell has no mixture – with many pieces dating from around the time or shortly after it was built. The playing is assured and the recording by Adam Foster excellent, but the organ itself is the star of the show.
FOR THE IRON VOICE: 21ST-CENTURY ORGAN MUSIC
Paul Walton plays the organ of Bridlington Priory · Regent REGCD483
This exciting CD is a showcase for the organ (substantially rebuilt by Nicholson & Co. in 2005), for the young organist (assistant at Bristol Cathedral), and for the composers. The title piece is Philip Wilby’s three-movement suite For the Iron Voice, showing off the skills of composer and player and the range of possibilities of the instrument. Well worth hearing are pieces by John Pickard (Tesserae – a sort of mosaic of ideas) and a Pastorale by Alan Gibbs followed by Evening Voluntary by Elizabeth Winters. These provide 10 minutes of calm before the excitement of Nicolas Kingman’s Three Pieces – Hommage to Jehan Alain (and quoting the theme of Litanies), Paul Fisher’s Seherzo, and above all David Briggs’s imaginative Legend of St Nicholas that ends on a note of cheerful exhilaration. It is an uplifting CD.