THE wealth of church music that continues to pour out of record
companies is staggering - and encouraging. Never before has access
been available to so wide a repertoire, not just in CD format, but
in other ways (the budget-priced Naxos.com has a particularly good
download arrangement, for example).
On that label you can hear such wonders as Beethoven's rare
cantata Der Glorreiche Augenblick (The Glorious
Moment, celebrating the demise of Napoleon) in a vital
performance by Hilary Davan Wetton's City of London Choir; or
elsewhere (on Philips 422 360-2, in Sir Neville
Marriner's performance, for instance), the exquisite beauties of
the 11-year-old Mozart's Die Schuldigkeit des ersten
Gebots (1768), sometimes seen as his earliest
Singspiel or opera, but in essence a joyous oratorio.
Die Schuldigkeit was revived only last month, at the
Wigmore Hall in London, by the Classical Opera Company under Ian
Page, with Andrew Kennedy in the astonishing arias that Mozart
wrote for the tenor soloist (sung by Hans Peter Blochwitz on the
Philips). Page's performance has just been recorded on Signum
SIG CD 343; so you now have an excellent
In a different guise, Neil Collier's sophisticated Priory label
has long ago first imitated and then easily excelled the
single-microphone efforts of Harry Mudd and the old Abbey/Alpha
LPs, which ran into deep trouble over fees/copyright, and can now
be found preserved in the National Archive's music section. A few
are beginning to be reissued, including one remastered gem on Regis
(RRC 1379), featuring a clutch of solo trebles
(Robin Blaze is on one track) - above all, the tenor Andrew Wicks
(former chorister at Chichester), whose boyish musicianship in
astonishing repertoire (e.g. Spohr, Mendelssohn, Rutland Boughton,
and some relishable English folk ditties), with the late John Birch
at the keyboard, has been one of my treats of the year; and Michael
Criswell, of New College, Oxford, who turns Jacobean music (Lawes,
Purcell, Morley) into an unforgettable experience.
As the Master of the Queen's Music, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies,
enters his last season of his royal appointment, and approaches his
own 80th birthday, it is intriguing to note that the English
contemporary-music label NMC has recently issued his first opera,
Taverner. Perhaps because seen as difficult, it has not
had the airings it deserves, either in Britain (except a revival at
Covent Garden) or in Germany, where it really belongs, in the
(structural and antiheroic) tradition of Berg's Wozzeck,
Hindemith's Mathis der Maler (about the religious artist
Grünewald), and Pfitzner's Palestrina (about the
composer's papal tussles over music in the Reformation era).
Tense and dramatic, Taverner deals with the schism
between Henry VIII and Rome, the failure of Cardinal Wolsey to
prevent it, and the persecutions that followed under Cromwell. The
performance is by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Oliver Knussen,
who brings to all of modern music the clarity of a Boulez and the
passion of a Pappano. With a cast led by Martyn Hill (as the
recusant-bashing ex-composer John Taverner) and, above all, a
devilish David Wilson-Johnson, the recording (NMCD
157) is a revelation.
IT IS impossible not to marvel at Hyperion's flair for
uncovering sacred music that one cannot yet find elsewhere. From
earlier eras, I could mention Ex Cathedra's radiant disc of
Giovanni Gabrieli (CDA 67957), and a lovely
collection, "Music from the Chirk Castle Part-Books" (CDA
67695), on which rarities by the Tudors William Mundy and
the fabulous Robert Parsons are sung by Stephen Rice's sensitive
Brabant Ensemble, one of the treasures of Hyperion's stable.
We owe it to them that Hyperion CDA 67933
showcases the music of one of the true greats of French early
music, Jean Mouton (pre-1459-1522). Here we really are getting back
to the era equivalent to, if not Edward IV and Richard III, then
Henry VII. The treat is that Peter Phillips fulfilled a long
ambition by recording Mouton at almost the same time (on Gimell
CDGIM 047) with his Tallis Scholars - now less
pristine and innocently crystalline, but a sound more alive, rich,
and varied. The repertoire on the two Mouton discs is largely
different - two quite distinct Masses, for example; so you are not
duplicating if you buy both. Prepare to be ravished.
If you are an Arthur Sullivan fan, don't forget Ronald Corp's
recordings of The Prodigal Son (CDA
67423) and The Golden Legend (CDA
67280, double disc), the latter - an opera in many textual
respects - somewhat inexplicably the most popular choral work in
Victorian England after Messiah and Elijah, which
are landmarks in the Hyperion Pandora's Box.
But I am really thinking of something much more modern: the
explorations into modern Baltic and Scandinavian composers by
Stephen Layton with the choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, and
his superlative ensemble Polyphony, or by Rupert Gough with his
Choir of Royal Holloway College - one of the outstanding new voices
in the sphere of college choirs today, along with Ben Nicholas's
Merton College, Oxford.
Who are these arresting modern-day composers? The Latvians Veljo
Tormis, born in 1930 (CDA 67601), Rihards Dubra,
b. 1964 (CDA 67799), and Eriks Ešenvalds, b. 1977
(CDA 67796); the Lithuanian Vytautas MiŠkinis, b.
1954 (CDA 67818); the Estonian Arvo Pärt, b. 1935
(CDA 67375); and the Pole Pawel Lukaszewski, born
in 1968 in Czestochowa, the city of the Black Madonna (CDA
67724 and 67639), as well as the Swede Bo
Hansson, b. 1950 (CDA 67881), and the superb
70-year-old Scandinavian-descended American composer Morten
Lauridsen, b. 1943, celebrated for "O Magnum Mysterium"
and "Lux Aeterna" (CDA 67449, 67580).
Always frail nowadays, Pärt - his 80th birthday, too, approaches
- was not well enough to make the journey to Gloucester for the
2013 Three Choirs Festival.
But the truth is that the quality of Layton's trained choirs -
refinement, sheer accuracy, purity without prissiness - mean that,
to all intents, we have him wherever we go in the world. Hyperion's
marketing, like Naxos's, means you can enter a shop in Beijing or
Bucharest, Singapore or Sumatra, and find copies of these exquisite
Layton performances of Baltic music, and much else.
Gough's Royal Holloway students invariably add a feisty quality
of their own. I just occasionally find hints of over-succulence in
the thickly layered, clustering chords. But, you will probably love
them. On all these Hyperion recordings you meet music-making that
is the tops.
THIS year's Three Choirs put me in touch with two other discs
that I might have missed: a beautifully characterised, deliciously
committed performance of E. J. ("Jack") Moeran's secular part-song
cycle Songs of Springtime (texts Shakespeare, Herrick,
etc.; Acclaim APCD 4012). Moeran is one of my
desert-island composers, mainly because of our shared provenance
(Uppingham School). So I am particularly pleased to have this one,
although not to forget that there is a spirited, accomplished,
fruity reading by Paul Spicer's Finzi Singers on Chandos
The other is a compilation of music from Gloucester Cathedral
(Priory 5050) under three music directors: Adrian
Partington (current), David Briggs, and the much lamented John
Sanders, the tenth anniversary of whose death falls this December.
To hear Sanders conduct Sumsion, his mentor and predecessor, is as
moving as hearing Sanders conduct another predecessor, S. S.
Wesley, Charles Wood (Expectans Expectavi, simply
knockout), or Sanders himself (here instead we hear him perform his
own organ Soliloquy).
Sadly, Andrew Nethsingha, who single-handedly turned the
Gloucester choir round during a brief low trough, does not figure
on this disc (happily more are to follow); but he took S. S. Wesley
with him to St John's College, Cambridge, and you can relish the
warmth of his superb recent recording with his choir there of that
composer's principal anthems ("The Wilderness", "Ascribe unto the
Lord", and "Blessed Be the God and Father" all figure) on Chandos
To my mind, Sanders produced, for his day, the most intimate,
tender cathedral sound in the kingdom, abetted by a shatteringly
beautiful acoustic; and, because of the impact of his modest
personality, the warmest cathedral ambience outside the metropolis
(though for sheer excellence his neighbour Roy Massey at Hereford
ran him close); just as Matthew Owens's Wells are unmatched for
excellence today (witness their William Mathias disc, CDA
67740, or their more recent Bob Chilcott collection,
Have you a fondness for the pure medieval and the chivalric age?
Look no further than Hyperion's latest from the Orlando Consort
(CDA 67727): Guillaume de Machaut's secular songs
or plaintes. I get a shiver down the spine every time the
alto Matthew Venner opens his mouth, but he is not on all tracks;
so you get to hear the marvellous sound that the other members
make. You do wonder if there are ways this repertoire could be
enlivened, so that the secular text isn't all just recited like a
Homeric epic in monotone. But it is mighty beautiful. Also, John
Potter and friends have put music from a century earlier,
13th-century France, on to Hyperion CDA 67949.
Remember Richard I's Blondel? He's here somewhere.
The supreme, most talked-about disc from Decca a year or so ago
was Robert Hollingworth's rediscovery with I Fagiolini of the
40-part motet by Alessandro Striggio: breathtaking (478
2734, and also on DVD; and you get a burst and Robert's
introduction at www.deccaclassics.com/html/special/striggio/). Bear
in mind that they have since issued the 1612 Italian Vespers: not
the Monteverdi, which was 1611, but Gabrieli, Viadana, and more
Lincoln Cathedral Choir's brave and successful John Ireland
disc, on Naxos 8.573024, has a wonderful full
sound, and is a landmark for this splendidly rejuvenated boys' and
girls' choir under Aric Prentice.
The opening Ireland Te Deum in F, and the Communion Service in
C, are gorgeously sung, and the intermittent solos are touching and
uplifting. Some of the warmth I mentioned above, regarding
Sanders's Gloucester, applies here. Where a smaller boy is timid,
the beauty still shines through.
There are 13 minutes of rollicking organ solo by Charles
Harrison; and when "My Song is Love Unknown", "Ex Ore
Innocentium" (with one of two splendid girl solos), or
"Greater Love hath no Man" - so apt for the coming year - bursts
upon us, the tears are ready to roll. A masterpiece for Naxos: a
disc of the year in 2012, and to my mind still in 2013-14.
I MIGHT be forgiven for slipping in two orchestral items. One is
easy to justify: it is two Piano Concertos and a Fantaisie for
Piano and Orchestra by Charles-Marie Widor (CDA
67817). Always digging out new items for its Romantic
Concerto series, Hyperion has lit upon these wonders. The music is
not all cogent: there is some bombast, as you might expect, and as
the genre demands. But it would be nice to think that we can expect
future concertos from Boëllmann, Gigout, Lefébure-Wély, Vierne, and
similar organ masters.
The other is an equal surprise. The astoundingly expressive
Steven Isserlis has recorded a largely unknown earlier cello
concerto by Dvořák. While the famous one in B minor, also recorded
here, in which he mourns the death of his old love Josefina
(subsequently sister-in-law), and perhaps the death of their love
(Josefina married a rich count who became one of the composer's
closest, most trusted friends), was completed in 1895, this one, in
A minor, was written right at the start of his career: 1865, the
year of his teething first two symphonies. This disc (CDA
67917) is staggering.
LASTLY, to surely the most important British church-music
composer of our era: James MacMillan (though Gabriel Jackson, as on
Delphian DCD34027, from Matthew Owens's choir when
he was still at St Mary's, Edinburgh, runs him close).
The must-buy new issue is Martin Baker's recording with the
Choir of Westminster Cathedral of 14 items from MacMillan's bracing
sacred oeuvre: the boys sing as if every one were an avenging St
Michael. At times, it is terrifying; for that is how MacMillan
meant it to be. But the quality of singing (the men, too) is
knockout. Westminster made umpteen irrestible discs under James
O'Donnell, and more before him with David Hill (Praetorius, etc.).
But this MacMillan is among their best ever. How rewarding to boast
20 boys (four altos) of this musical maturity. Judging by the
extended line-up, Baker seems to have got half the Orlando to join
Yet don't forget Harry Christophers's explosive MacMillan
recording with The Sixteen (Coro 16096). Again,
the Tenebrae Responsories - riveting music, of great
emotive power - are at the music's heart, but also MacMillan's
Miserere, and several other gorgeous anthems not on the
dazzling Westminster compilation: the comparison is instructive,
and the contrast is interesting. Coro, The Sixteen's own burgeoning
label (www.thesixteen.com/page/shop), continues to pour forth
recordings of vast quality. I would immediately pick out the first
of their series of Bach's Lutheran Masses (Coro
16115): packed with nuggets, and music ludicrously
neglected in the face of the Bach Passions.
You have only to watch the bounce in Christophers's step when
conducting to realise the kind of vibrancy and twang the music
itself will take on. He is doing it again, energising a systematic
and comprehensive Monteverdi issue (Coro 16087,
16101, 16109), and the same with
Palestrina (16091, 16105,
16106, 161140). And if you listen
to "Royal Moments: The Genius of the Illumination" (medievals from
Dufay to John Browne and Richard Pygott, 16098),
or to Augustino Steffani's Stabat Mater
(16076), you will realise that Christophers brings
the same bounce to repertoire of the 1400s and 1600s, too.
Not to be missed, either, is a disc of music by the Pole
Bartłomiej Pękiel, prominent in Warsaw and Cracow in the mid-17th
century. This is under the choir's assistant conductor, Eamonn
Dougan. The later tracks especially bring surprises, and the honest
endeavour in bringing treasures from Eastern Europe (there are many
more in Hungary and Slovakia) deserves our admiration. No wonder
this choir, paired with the South Bank Centre and northern venues,
has won the accolade - abroad, too - of being the supreme choral
ensemble of our day.