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Enjoy this wealth of music

04 October 2013

Roderic Dunnett makes his choice of new and recent recordings


The Master of the Queen's Music: Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

The Master of the Queen's Music: Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

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 choice.

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 (CHAN 9182).

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 CHAN 10751.

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, CDA 67650).

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 (478 3506).

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 in, too.

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.

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