31 May 2009

Songs of Lennox Berkeley

Originally published on muciscalcriticism.com
31 may 2009

Sir Lennox Berkeley (1903 – 1989) is one of those composers whose life spans much of the twentieth century and many singers will know him through his much-loved choral pieces; the beautiful setting of The Lord is my Shepherd or maybe his Missa Brevis or even the Mass for 5 voices. But how many of us have had the opportunity of hearing a programme of his songs such as this new album by the English tenor, James Gilchrist?

Presenting these songs in a chronological order (with an exception for the central position of the cycle Five Herrick Poems, Op. 89) allows the listener a delicious opportunity to reflect on the long career of Sir Lennox and the astonishing artists with whom he mixed throughout his life. Berkeley was partly of French descent so his assured setting of French poetry from his undergraduate days at Merton College in 'D'un vanneur de blé aux vents' should not come as a great surprise despite his relative youth. It certainly impressed Maurice Ravel and on his advice Berkeley went to study with Boulanger in Paris in 1926, and his cycle Tombeaux of poetry by John Cocteau was written during his first year there. In Paris he met many leading artists through Cocteau, including the composers of 'Les Six' whose influence can be heard in the bitonality of this minature cycle.

'How love came in', the first English song in this programme, dates from 1933 when Berkeley was back in London and is a charming setting of a poem by Robert Herrick. It is followed by 'Bells of Cordoba', a setting of Lorca in English translation, and then the 1958 cycle Five poems of W.H.Auden, which are more exploratory in their compositional technique but so beautifully written that one can only feel renewed sadness at the loss of his undergraduate settings of Auden. The Five Herrick Poems written for Peter Pears and Osian Ellis come next and are one of the more surprising premiere recordings – surprising that they have not been recorded before. Then Berkeley's larger cycle Autumn's Legacy once again shows a shift in his harmonic language, probably influenced by his experiments with 12 tone rows. These songs are thick with the darkening atmospheres of autumn and contain some of his most ingenious and descriptive piano writing.

Three songs, 'Automne', 'Ode du premier jour de Mai' and 'Sonnet' precede the final cycle Five Chinese Songs written for Meriel and Peter Dickinson (Peter Dickinson provides some of the excellent sleeve notes). This cycle has a newly sparse feeling that Berkeley claimed in a 1974 BBC interview had been influenced by the Chinese language, less busy and wonderfully devoid of any firm tonality.

Gilchrist gives consistently wonderful performances of these works, with his clear voice and intelligent interpretations he is quite masterful at the English songs, in particular, and is well matched to his accompanist Anna Tilbrook, who responds admirably to Berkeley's keen grasp of counterpoint (presumably learnt under Boulanger) which underpins much of his keyboard writing. Alison Nicholls' deft harp-technique delivers a welcome change of texture at the mid-point of this recording and she makes light work of what is very difficult music indeed. In some ways I would have enjoyed more obvious changes of atmosphere between the French and English works, in particular, but such is the potency of Berkeley's textures that on repeated listening this ceases to matter.

As ever with Chandos, the album is beautifully presented and recorded with their characteristic clarity and depth of field, all of which really captures the enjoyment of these artists in their performances. It is wonderful to have such a collection of Berkeley's songs and this album is sure to inspire many listeners to discover more of his music.

James Gilchrist, tenor; Anna Tilbrook, piano; Alison Nicholls, harp (Chandos CHAN 10528)

26 May 2009

Not no faceless Angel — Choral music by Gabriel Jackson

Originally published on musicalcriticism.com
26 may 2009

Stephen Layton and his choir Polyphony have been performing and recording new choral works for several years now and this latest album of music by Gabriel Jackson can be seen as another installment in an inspired series which has included composers such as Thomas Adès, James MacMillan, Morten Lauridsen, Arvo Pärt, Eric Whitacre and, of course, John Tavener. Anyone who has heard this choir will know that their singing is quite simply sublime, so much so that the Daily Telegraph has already described them as 'one of the best small choirs now before the public'.

Similarly, Gabriel Jackson (b. 1962) has been steadily building his reputation over the past 20 years as a leading choral composer, even though his works are not limited to that medium by any means. A quick survey of his music shows a preoccupation with religious themes although in his sleeve-notes Stephen Johnson uses the famous description of Ralph Vaughn Williams as 'the Christian agnostic' as a way to deflect from overt Christianity and introduce Jackson's concept of 'private epiphanies'; by which he means those moments which give us insight to that which is beyond our comprehension. Aside from the tradition of religion there is an obvious preoccupation with the tradition of music itself – indeed one could say that of any composer – but Jackson is as likely to adapt compositional techniques from mediaeval and renaissance music-theory as he is to absorb the atmosphere of the Russian orthodox tradition or the rhythmic vitality of Stravinsky.

The programme opens with two songs in English – a setting of Blake's To Morning (2007) and Song (I gaze upon you) (1996) both displaying an unerring gift for the natural rhythms of language, resulting in delightfully unhurried miniatures that should suit any competent chamber choir. Cecilia Virgo (2000) is representative of Jackson's fondness for Tudor church music and draws on influences from Tallis' 'Spem in alium' and works by Browne and Carver, to name but a few. Here, deeply sonorous textures are spiced with delicate soprano details and one of the most arrestingly beautiful openings to a motet that I have heard in a long time. Polyphony sing it so well that, for a moment, one really couldn't imagine wanting to hear this piece any other way.

Rhythm is also a preoccupation of Jackson's as is the clever use of compositional devices gleaned from the Netherlanders-school which often surface in his works. In the following Orbis patrator optime (2006) the broken melismas somehow link ideas from composers such as Obrecht and Stravinsky creating a gorgeous effect, bordering on transcendental. But this meditative atmosphere reaches a zenith in the title-work of this album, a setting of a poem by Tanya Lake, Not no faceless Angel (2006), which deals with the big themes of loss and bereavement; here Jackson is at his most explicit, using his music to explain and to comfort when the words can go no further. The addition of instrumental timbres (cello and flute) in this piece seem especially poignant at the mid-point of the programme.

My favourite works, however, have to be the final two settings of Salve Regina. The first (2000) is only five minutes long and contains a beautiful soprano solo sung here by Laura Oldfield and then Salve Regina 2 (2004), which was written to celebrate the 850th anniversary of the foundation of Beaulieu Abbey. Here various strands of Jackson's style are brought together: Stravinsky in the rhythm and early music-theory in a skilful double-gimel for the upper voices. This is Jackson at his most fluid and Polyphony deliver an intelligent and gripping musical performance at a very high standard.

This sublime album comes highly recommended and the performances are another triumph for Polyphony and Stephen Layton.

Polyphony / Stephen Layton (Hyperion CDA67708)

A New Heaven

Originally published on musicalcriticism.com
26 may 2009

Throughout their first thirty years The Sixteen have remained faithful to a core repertoire of early music with various other explorations along the way and this new album is another one of their delightful excursions, this time focusing on the music of the Anglican church from Victorian times to the present day.

The programme itself is rather ingenious as it covers a time when the Anglican church enjoyed its long (and last?) relatively stable period as a major progenitor and patron of the arts in England. Starting with Parry's famous setting of Psalm 122 I was glad (performed here without the famous royal acclimations) written for the 1902 coronation of Edward VII, The Sixteen trace a line through the tranquility of those compositions that were unruffled by the persuasive march of modernism, such as Stanford's much-loved Beati quorum via and Balfour Gardiner's rather indulgent Evening Hymn to present-day settings of The Lord is my shepherd by Howard Goodall and John Rutter. It is a fantastic idea and makes for a wonderfully nostalgic programme of traditional works that is as evocative of evensong as it is thought-provoking. Surely these composers working within the Anglican tradition, developing and passing on their skills have been rather under-represented and maybe even slightly eclipsed by the coincidence of the early music revival with the rise of the recording industry? Of course these pieces are well covered by cathedral and Oxbridge choirs but it is pleasing to see a major label such as Decca present such a well-packaged and well-performed album of our recent choral heritage.

This is a bigger, richer and, dare I say it, more romantic Sixteen than we usually hear and it really suits this music. Of course, Harry Christophers' singers all have extensive experience of the Christian choral tradition but what is especially poignant is the sheer range of vocal colours that the sound of adult female voices offer, since we are mostly used to hearing boys sing the treble lines. In particular the beginning of Faire is the heaven (Harris) is delightfully paced and Harry Christophers demonstrates his keen affinity with the choral medium, and I was also deeply impressed with Evening Hymn (Balfour Gardiner) which can, in other hands, too often get lost amidst its own stodginess but here retains a clear text and musical direction without loosing any of its passion. Listen out for the great alto sound at the beginning of the 'Amen'.

The one difficulty I have with this album is with the settings of The Lord is my Shepherd in this programme. I agree that John Rutter, in particular, is an important living composer and I do appreciate the implicit suggestion that he carries on a choral tradition inherited from the late Victorians, but he feels like a bit of an afterthought stuck at the end of the disc like this, whilst Howard Goodall takes the centre of the programme. Personally I would have either swapped Goodall for Finzi or used a more chronological approach to make more historical sense.

Classical-music aficionados should not sneer at the obvious whiff of Katherine Jenkins-style marketing that Decca have given this album because underneath the slick exterior these performances have real musical integrity. Christophers breathes new life into pieces that have for too long been ossified in memories of uncomfortable pews and smells of wood polish. His ensemble, The Sixteen, are as always outstanding.

The Sixteen/Harry Christophers (Decca 179 5732)

10 May 2009

Handel: Chandos Anthems

Originally published on musicalcriticism.com
10 May 2009

These three Anthems for Cannons or Chandos Anthems as they are more widely known, make for a glorious programme from the choir of Trinity Choir Cambridge and their musical director Stephen Layton and at over 20 minutes each they deliver generous recording of Handel's music which maintains high standards throughout. The works date from about 1717 and were written to be performed in the church of St Lawrence Whitchurch which the Brydges family used until their own chapel attached to the Cannons estate was completed in 1720.

'O praise the Lord with one consent', like the other anthems, uses psalm texts but dispenses with the expected opening orchestra sonata in favour of a longish orchestral introduction. The choir respond keenly to the text right from the start as Layton sets an elegant pace that allows for generous phrasing and an emphatic choral delivery. The following solo arias are in mournful minor keys and beautifully sung by countertenor Iestyn Davies and tenor James Gilchrist. In particular, Davies negotiates the low passages with an enviable vocal colour that allows him to use a large palette of emotions in a part of the voice that many other countertenors often find problematic. Gilchrist is, as always, a wonderfully energetic singer and makes light work of some of Handel’s fiendishly difficult fast passagework. The mood changes for Neal Davies' bass aria 'That God is great' (spot the reworking from the Queen Anne Birthday Ode) which is a jolly (major key) aria and very stylishly sung indeed. Later in the work Emma Kirkby's solo 'God's tender mercy' suits her thoughtful delivery perfectly. Kirkby's voice has softened somewhat over the years without losing any of its vibrant personality, allowing her to execute some beautifully subtle phrasing in the lower passages that really pull at the listener's heart-strings.

The second anthem, 'Let God arise', gives us the opportunity to hear The Academy of Ancient Music on their own in the opening sonata. Their enviable violin-tone has always been one of my favourite aspects of their playing and I suspect this is in part due to Pavlo Beznosiuk, whose performances I always enjoy tremendously. Their oboist, Katharina Spreckelsen, also deserves a special mention for gorgeous phrasing and tone throughout. This anthem is sheer delight with the choir at the very best, especially as they enjoy the 'be scattered' figure in their opening chorus; they set very high standards for Cambridge choirs indeed even though I wasn't entirely convinced by the vowel-sounds in the opening figures of 'Praised be the Lord!' and 'Blessed be God'.

Lastly, 'My song shall be alway' is a tapestry of familiar Handel moments borrowed from or by other works. More glorious instrumental playing (and astonishing breath control from the oboist) characterises the opening Sonata and is followed by a particularly beautiful aria for Kirkby and the chorus. Similar high standards from the soloists are heard all the way through this anthem and Trinity College Choir deliver a fitting end to the programme with their confident closing chorus, 'Thou art the glory'.

This is the fourth disc that the choir have released with Stephen Layton and well worth buying for the sheer enjoyment that these performers communicate. Absolutely excellent.

Soloists; Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge; Academy of Ancient Music/Layton (Hyperion CDA67737)

Mathias: Choral Music

Originally published on musicalcriticism.com
10 May 2009

William Mathias (1934-1992) is one of just a few twentieth century Welsh composers to enjoy a truly international reputation largely due to choral and organ works which cathedral choirs and larger choral communities perform regularly. And Wells Cathedral Choir, one of England's great cathedral choirs, represents a tradition of singing to which Mathias dedicated so much of his artistic talent.
Mathias writes with a highly individual blend of styles drawn from twentieth century British, French and American composers – especially the young Benjamin Britten and also Peter Maxwell Davies – in the way that he absorbs influences from Mediaeval music, creating vocally engaging textures with intense rhythmic drive and pleasingly angular organ accompaniments. However, as Roderic Dunnett points out in his sleeve notes (of Hyperion's usual excellent standard), Mathias was also a symphonist and a master of the string quartet.

The album opens with the vibrant 'Let the people praise thee, O God', written for the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, and Wells Cathedral choir bring an enthusiastic energy to this music right from the very start with their outstanding performance. This famous anthem is followed by what I would consider to be one of the best works on the album, the Jesus College Service: a 'Magnificat' and 'Nunc Dimitis' from 1970. The incredible confidence of the 'Magnificat' with is modal lilt and busy rhythmic patterns is balanced beautifully by the tender opening of the 'Nunc Dimitis'. Listen out for the astonishing setting of 'Amen' at the end of the 'Magnificat' which the choir sing with relish.

The beautiful macaronic carol 'A babe is born' displays a characteristic sense of urgency so particularly appropriate to the Christmas story and is followed by an earlier carol 'In excelsis gloria' (1954) which Dunnett's notes liken to the texture of organum. After a perky organ solo 'Processional' the central part of this programme is the 'Missa Brevis' (1973), a darker and more reflective work than the evening canticles, again punctuated by a glorious array of sounds from Wells Cathedral organ. The heavy and challenging passagework for men's voices which dominates the 'Kyrie' and 'Gloria' is finally dispelled in the 'Sanctus' with large blocks of joyful choral sound underpinned by more superb organ textures. This is a mass cycle which portrays a definite journey through the Eucharistic service culminating in a beautiful 'Agnus Dei'; if you don’t already know this work, then this disc is an excellent way to meet it.

The second half of the programme comprises three more anthems (and motets), another ingenious little organ solo and the 1964 Festival Te Deum and Jubilate Deo (1983). I was particularly drawn to the optimistic 'Lift up your heads, O ye gates' (1969) and I enjoyed the choir's performance, in particular, which was every bit as exciting a the music itself and provided a great set-up for the heart-stopping contrast with the slow hushed beauty of the following unaccompanied 'O nata lux'.

Wells Cathedral has a beautiful organ played skillfully and sensitively throughout this album by organist Jonathan Vaughan; he is a wonderful accompanist for Matthias' music which I suspect he makes sound a lot easier than it really is. The choir are also superb which is especially pleasing since I am a great supporter of mixed treble-lines and always welcome successful performances like this that prove they are supporting our priceless cathedral choral tradition rather than threatening to erode it. However, what is really most impressive about Wells Cathedral Choir is the sheer range of colours that their conductor, Matthew Owens, manages to coax out in such tricky music. They really rise to this challenge and can be forgiven the odd moment when they overshoot the mark and become slightly blustery. These are few and far between.
This is a fantastic album which I highly recommend.

Wells Cathedral Choir / Matthew Owens (Hyperion CDA67740)