COMPOSERS: etc,Hildegard Of Bingen,Mozart,Tallis,Weelkes
LABELS: Ex Cathedra
ALBUM TITLE: Collection: A New Heaven
PERFORMER: Ex Cathedra/Jeffrey Skidmore; Andrew Fletcher (organ)
CATALOGUE NO: EXCCD 002
There’s a refreshing range of repertoire in these collections of sacred, for the most part English, choral music, some of which is new to the catalogue.
For its Howells disc, Selwyn College Choir leaves its home ground for Cambridge’s main Catholic church, giving polished, near-professional performances which really capture the spirit of the music. The soprano line is particularly well shaped in the Sarum and Winchester services, and the men’s unison voices are smooth and refined. The sound is immediate, as if you’re standing in the midst of the choir.
Keble College, Oxford, recorded Sullivan’s church music in his centenary year in the neo-Gothic splendour of its own chapel. The sound, however, especially when choir and organ are heard together, is disappointingly mushy, with the individual lines hard to distinguish. There’s an interesting selection of anthems, from rather facile partsong style to grand, dramatic works like ‘Sing, Ye Heavens’. Incredibly, more than half of the 15 tracks have never been recorded before. All credit to Keble’s choir for learning such a large body of music and giving it in general a fair hearing.
One of Sullivan’s most vitriolic critics, Stanford, also has some rarely heard anthems revived by St Albans Cathedral Choir, in these lively and exciting performances. The 40-minute Bible Songs (1909) for baritone, organ and choir are intriguing works, better suited for CD than for public performance. Lay clerk Kenneth Burgess’s rich vibrato is just right for their declamatory style, conjuring up hand-on-chest histrionics and walrus moustaches (no wonder he was a bass lay clerk at the age of 13!).
On first hearing the other Stanford disc, there’s little to reveal that it dates from 1962-3. The booklet is most apologetic about corruption due to oxide shedding, etc, but really the problems are few and far between, and more than compensated for by the sweetness of the Magdalen boys’ voices under Bernard Rose and the warm glow of the sound.
York Minster has produced a fascinating disc of music written by a whole succession of its Masters of the Music, tracing English church music styles almost continuously from Tudor composer John Thorne’s prayer to ward off plague to two pieces by the present postholder Philip Moore. It makes one wonder whether every cathedral in England has such a hidden body of music in its history, just waiting to be discovered. The performances are more successful in the later works, particularly when backed up by the impressive sound of the Minster’s organ.
The repertoire chosen by the Hampstead Singers, though sacred, is given a totally different feeling by the addition of strings, harp and occasionally wind – many of the arrangements made by the composers. The instrumentation adds a lushness to what is in many cases already very lush, sensuous music (Hadley described his ‘My Beloved Spake’ as ‘two… orgasms with a choir bit in between’). Rutter seems a strange companion for the other composers, but these are all good performances, with excellent ensemble and diction from the choir and a particularly inspired Dyson Hierusalem.
Ex Cathedra’s survey of the last millennium may not win the prize for adventurous repertoire but its performances are wonderful, with expertly shaded nuances of dynamics and phrasing and a luminous tone. Tracks like Mozart’s ‘Ave verum corpus’ and Harris’s ‘Faire is the Heaven’ dazzle with the sheer beauty of their sound.